Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Small business meets tablet app: a success story

Our latest ShopTalk story shows how tablet apps can help small businesses boost the bottom line – whether they’re developing them or just using existing tools.

The story focuses on the owners of Dilworth restaurant Zen Fusion, who developed an iPad app called NexTable to remedy concerns they had at their business, including: guests leaving after being quoted a wait time, stressed out staff and a relatively inflexible table system.
The NexTable iPad app in action at Zen Fusion. 

The app is now used in more than a dozen local restaurants, with nearly two dozen more in the pipeline, says NexTable co-founder Phong Luong.

A veteran of the food-service industry myself, I wanted to see the app in action, so I headed to Zen Fusion during my lunch hour last week. Luong walked me through how the new restaurant-management system would work for a typical customer like me and how it makes for a better guest experience.

After greeting me from a hostess stand devoid of clutter and occupied only by an iPad, Luong ushered me to a booth by the front door, where another iPad and a new iPad mini were set up.

You know how on today’s tablet commercials, everything looks effortless? Just a little drag-and-drop here, a tap with the forefinger there and BAM – chaos to order.

That’s the vibe I got when I saw NexTable in action. Luong and I reenacted several potential situations that could happen at any of the restaurants that use the iPad app.

1) Reservations: First, we pretend I’m on my A-game and think to make a reservation. I pretend to call the restaurant to schedule dinner at 6 p.m., and Luong puts my information in the system. Within seconds, I get a text confirmation, including my party size, the time, date, address of the restaurant and a link to the Zen Fusion website, where I can find directions.

2) Walk-ins: Then we reenact the more likely situation where I just walk in, no reservation. I tell Luong “party of three” and he puts me in the system. Using the sophisticated table-time estimates built into the app, he informs me I’ll have to wait about 35 minutes before my table is ready.

Rather than hand me a pager, Luong asks for my cell phone number and tells me that I’m free to walk around the shopping center, and that I’ll get a text reminder when my table is almost ready. “Would you like to know 10 minutes or 20 minutes before?” he asks. Then, if I've strayed far, I’ll have time get back.

3) Incentives to stay: In the third mock-up situation, I’m a walk-in guest given a wait time of about an hour.  I stick around the restaurant lobby for about 15 minutes, but begin to consider other nearby restaurants where I won’t have to wait so long. Then, I get a text that says, “Show this to the bartender to get a half-price glass of wine.” Now I've got an incentive to stick around.

I've worked in restaurants before – as a hostess in high school and a server in college – and can attest to the stress of an evening bustle.  

You've seen it before: At many restaurants, the hostess stand is populated with well-dressed teens huddled around a paper calendar of reservations, a list of last names and party sizes, and a laminated mock-up of the dining room.

Then there’s this rudimentary chart that says “if X names are on the list, the wait time is X.” But that collection of rows and columns doesn't account for how a large party might take up two tables, how a group celebrating a birthday might stay twice the normal length of time, or how the guy who orders a well-done steak (why??) will prolong his stay by a half-hour.

So sometimes the hosts and hostesses, no fault of their own, quote an inaccurate wait time. And sometimes hungry people get testy. And sometimes these hungry people mutter obscenities before they squeal a tire and take their appetites elsewhere. 

When you’re a hostess, your feelings get a little hurt, but when you’re a business owner, you see dollar signs walking out the door. 

At Zen Fusion, and the other restaurants using NexTable, including Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar, Café Monte and Miro Spanish Grille, there are no stacks of paper at the hostess stands, no  charts that are often wrong.

One of the restaurants now using NexTable did the math, Luong said. In the pre-NexTable days, every night, the restaurant lost about six to eight parties, with an average of three guests per party.

If you assume four of those parties left because they were frustrated by the wait or an inaccurate wait time, that’s 12 lost customers a night.

Multiply 12 by the average meal price, $25 total, and you have $300 per night in foregone revenue. That’s an average of $2,100 lost each week ­– nearly $110,000 per year.

For more information and helpful tips for utilizing a tablet app for your small business, check out today’s ShopTalk story


hams john said...

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