(This column originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer)
Even before the pandemic, running a restaurant was a complicated business. Since COVID-19, it’s become even harder.
A typical restaurant today is managing an average of seven service models, including table, curbside, delivery, catering, and drive-through, according to a recent study from point-of-sale software maker Toast. Not only that, but because of rising prices and tight labor, it has become more important than ever for restaurant owners to better track their purchases, inventory, and labor budgets.
As a result, many of my clients who own or manage restaurants are upgrading their point-of-sale systems to new versions that are helping them address these issues. Point-of-sale systems are the hardware and software — such as a cash register or barcode scanner — that enable a business to make sales.
“The pandemic forced the restaurant industry to address a key pain point in innovation: the limitations of legacy technology paired with a steadily growing ecosystem of disconnected technology point solutions,” said Teddy Tsang, vice president of product marketing at Toast.
Whether it’s QR codes to read menus or individual credit card readers for each server, restaurant owners are using more types of technology to bring in money. Each different point-of-sale system requires its own workflow, training, auditing, and management.
The good, the bad and the complicated
“The good systems make life easier, and the bad ones make it miserable,” said Wolf Williams, the general manager for Center City restaurants Abe Fisher and K’far Cafe. “A busy brunch is difficult enough — the last thing you need is someone exclaiming, ‘Where’s my food?’ as you search, fruitlessly, for their order.”
Williams recently transitioned both of her restaurants to the same point-of-sale system and found that while staff initially found learning a new system challenging, they are now much happier than they were with the old system. The previous software made it “incredibly stressful” for both staff and managers. “Did this order go through correctly? Did this payment go through? I had servers coming to me saying, ‘I swear it authorized the card, and I have the signed copy of the signature receipt, but the payment information has disappeared.’ “
Lindsey Pete, co-owner of Chestnut Hill Brewing Co., switched her point-of-sale system to make ordering faster. Her restaurant heavily relies on QR codes where guests can scan their orders and pay right from their table.
“QR codes make it helpful for groups who want to have separate tabs, and it is also helpful if we are ever understaffed,” she said. Pete says that guests like the service because they can order food and drink whenever they want it, and they don’t have to wait too long. “It also means the guests are not interrupted as much by servers,” she said.
Besides QR codes, Pete has deployed handheld devices for servers to use throughout the restaurant and also takes advantage of her new system’s online ordering, gift cards, and loyalty programs, as well as for sending out marketing emails. “The system has changed our business a lot,” she said.
With food costs rising this year, both Pete and Williams have relied heavily on their point-of-sale systems for managing their inventory. At Chestnut Hill Brewing Co., Pete tracks costs and uses display screens to manage tickets without paper. At both K’Far and Abe Fisher, Williams uses her point-of-sale system to give her an alert when inventory needs to be restocked and to give updates on existing order status.
All of these things are critical in a good point-of-sale system. But upgrading, or even implementing a new platform, isn’t always easy.
Williams, who recently underwent a full change in systems, said that making the switch required a lot of work and a pretty steep learning curve for employees. She advises managers to think carefully in advance about the specific things they need from the system, like accommodating both takeout and dining in, using QR codes, and accepting gratuities. She also thinks it’s important to think through every scenario that may be required.
“When we transitioned, we had a short period of time when our American Express customers had their cards declined, which was obviously frustrating to them and us,” she said. “We eventually solved the problem, but there should have been more discussions on forms of payment beforehand.”
Training new employees is also an important consideration and, according to Williams, it’s “really important” to warn staff beforehand.
“You need to tell your staff that ‘we’re going to go through a big transition, where we’re all learning. There will be some tough moments, but we will figure it out,’ “ she said. “Transitions are never seamless, but if you try to have realistic expectations, it will make everyone’s lives easier.”
Pete encourages those looking to change their point-of-sale systems to think long-term.
“Restaurant managers should pick a system that will meet their needs 5–10 years down the road and consider all your costs beforehand,” she said. “Some vendors will charge you for their equipment and then also charge you a monthly fee per device so it can get pricey.”
Those challenges aside, today’s point-of-sales systems can offer restaurant owners a wealth of new data about their business that can help them optimize hours, staffing, inventory, purchasing, and more, and help managers track sales data and understand what’s working and what’s not. A good system will help to increase operational efficiency, potentially expand sales, and give managers more control over their costs. But most important, it’ll provide a better guest experience.
“From dine-in to off-premise, a good point-of-sale system can play a key role in creating a memorable guest experience,” said Tsang. “For example, if you own a full-service restaurant, your guests might value check-splitting and paying at the table and using handheld devices can help increase table turn times. However, if you own a coffee shop, your customers might value a loyalty program that gets them points towards their favorite items and deepens their connection to your shop.”