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Smart operators – how to get to grips with electronic aids

28 May 2009

The technology now exists to give small restaurant and pub owners a flying start in keeping tabs on stock, costs and staff. Ross Bentley talks to three people facing up to the opportunities and problems of electronic aids to their business.

Most people entering the hospitality industry do so because they have a passion for food or customer service, or both. But the modern restaurant owner or hotel manager also needs to have a firm grip on the business side of the operation and the technology that supports it.

And while many of the bigger chains and brands will undoubtedly be backed up by a sophisticated technology infrastructure, the picture is a lot more mixed at the other end of the spectrum among small and independent operators.

At the Independent Hotel Association, for example, marketing director Ben Paul says his members range from larger properties who market themselves through their own websites and the global distribution systems (GDSs) to the smaller hotels who still write all reservations down in a book.

Tony Payne, chief executive of the Federation of Licensed Victuallers Associations, a group that represents self-employed licensees, says there is a similar variety among his members.

"It's difficult to generalise. Some of our members are making use of the latest technologies, while, for others, it isn't a priority," he says. "Even now, we can't send our newsletter out electronically because many still don't have e-mail."

One trend that has enabled small operators to take advantage of the software used by the big boys is the advent of the software as a service (SaaS) delivery model, according to James England, account director for small independents at software company Fourth Hospitability.

This increasingly popular model sees applications - be it back-office, PMS or stock control systems - hosted by suppliers and delivered to users over the internet instead of them having to maintain the applications themselves in-house. And whereas traditionally customers would pay licence fees for owning the software, with SaaS they are simply charged on a per usage or monthly basis.

But even though this model has made the set-up and delivery of software easier, many small operators leave technology considerations until far too late in the day, says Barry Skarin, a director at wine merchants Nebuchadnezzar Wines, who also advises independent restaurants.

He says: "For many, the back-end requirements are the last thing they think about. I recently worked with a Michelin-starred chef who opened his restaurant before he'd set up all the buttons on his till.

"He was playing catch-up with his technology for the next month or so, and had no accurate record of sales or staff costs for that period."

Skarin recommends small operators invest in reporting software so they "know all the numbers from day one". He also thinks they can make use of social networking technologies - a move that could bring business benefits at minimal cost.

He adds: "With one operator we set up a Facebook account and invited people to become a friend of the restaurant. From this, we invited people to a wine evening that went really well.

"All it took was little time and imagination. Smaller operators should be looking to use tools such as Facebook and Linked-in whenever they can."

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RICHARD YOUNG, GENERAL MANAGER, GREAT FOSTERS HOTEL, EGHAM, SURREY

The grand Elizabethan exterior of Great Fosters hotel belies the fact there is free Wi-Fi throughout the building and a modern meeting facility offering Blu-ray players and a large screen made from four 40-inch TV screens.

The hotel, which generates an annual turnover of around £6m, caters predominantly for business clientele during the week and special events, such as weddings, at weekends. And with these guests in mind, general manager Richard Young says he is considering investing in a number of technology solutions for the 44-bedroom property.

"We believe there is a demand for video-conferencing as businesses rein in travel costs and look for more environmentally-friendly ways of doing business," he says. "The technology has moved on and there are now some impressive devices that can be wheeled into a boardroom or bedroom on a trolley.

Young believes the same video-conferencing technology could also be put to use at a wedding event.

"For example, you can imagine Great Aunt Flo who is unable to travel from Australia doing a live transmission to the assembled guests. At the moment, we are carrying out market research to find out how well this service would be received."

Another technology that Young is planning to introduce later this year is a document sharing service, which will allow clients - be they wedding couples or business event planners - to rearrange table plans remotely.

He added: "It will involve a relatively small investment and differentiate us from other hotels. As an independent hotel, we have to try and stay ahead of the game."

DOMINIC LAKE, CO-FOUNDING DIRECTOR OF CANTEEN, LONDON

In the competitive London restaurant scene, using technology to keep a close eye on costs and sales trends is vital, according to Dominic Lake, co-founding director of the acclaimed Canteen chain of eateries.

Having launched their first Great British Food restaurant three years ago in Spitalfields, Lake and his partners now preside over three - the other two situated near the Royal Festival Hall and in Baker Street.

This success, he says, is not just down to great food and service, but also commercial awareness.

He said: "We've installed third-party management software from Fourth Hospitality to run regular reports from our EPoS system. For example, I get daily breakdowns of key management indicators sent to my iPhone. Knowing daily sales figures and staff costs as a percentage of sales helps us react quickly and make changes if required."

With many media-savvy Londoners among Canteen's clientele, Lake is also trialling online bookings via the restaurant reservations provider Live Bookings and plans to offer this facility for all his restaurants by the end of the year.

In addition, Lake is working on how to best employ social media to promote Canteen. One idea is to use Twitter to offer regular updates of menu specials and news from the restaurants.

"But, at the moment, we are just looking at it. I'd rather be a late entrant and do it well," he said.

NIGEL WILLIAMS, PARTNER OF JUST WILLIAMS PUBS, SHEFFIELD

By his own admission, pub manager Nigel Williams has been reluctant to invest in technology to help run the three Sheffield taverns under his charge.

Along with his wife, Williams is co-partner and leasehold operator of the Ranmoor Inn, the Three Tuns and the White Lion - establishments he describes as "good traditional pubs".

"I'm not against technology. But there are just so many other considerations," he says.

Williams has a separate till system in each pub and pays for a stock-taker to come in every six weeks. And while this is adequate, Williams believes he would benefit from a more integrated system.

He says: "Recently, I've been plugging away on the calculator to see how retail and budget price changes will affect my prices. I'm still doing stuff long-hand, whereas I know if I had a joined-up electronic till system, there would be a program to help me make the changes right away.

"But with margins tight, investment in a new till system is a big deal for us. And if we can do without one, we will."

Williams says he has so far resisted having a website. But he has noticed a number of visitors make their way to his pubs after visiting the Camra website - and this has changed his view.

He adds: "So many people now use the internet to find out what is going on and I'll be working on getting a website built this year for people who want to find a good pub serving real ales while in Sheffield."

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