Billy Waters never wanted to work in computers… but that hasn't stopped him throwing himself into the role of IT manager at restaurant chain Yo! Sushi. Ross Bentley reports. By his own admission, Billy Waters's move to the techie side of the restaurant business was unplanned.
Now IT manager at successful Japanese food-inspired restaurant chain Yo! Sushi, (www.yosushi.com), Waters had his first major brush with technology before he joined the company, while he was working in Singapore in the late 1990s.
"At the time I was overseeing operations at a large restaurant and micro-brewery and we couldn't find a reliable EPoS system supplier locally," he says.
"It was left to me to buy a system and install it, and I found the whole process very interesting."
This experience stood him in good stead when he returned to the UK in 2003 after the SARS crisis hit businesses in South-east Asia. He was soon in touch with Robin Rowland, the chief executive of Yo! Sushi and an old contact from the industry, and before long was involved in a project to roll out an EPoS system across the 14 outlets that made up the Yo! Sushi empire at the time.
Now firmly ensconced in the technology camp, 37-year-old Waters believes his experience of working on the operations side of the restaurant business has been beneficial.
"I think I'm less likely to introduce a technology that won't work at restaurant level than someone who is a career technologist," he says. "And when I attend new openings of restaurants I don't just stand around feeling like a spare part. I can usually be found working on the tills for an hour or so on an opening day - just to make sure the systems are bedding in well."
In that case Waters must have served quite a few customers of late, as the company has just had its most successful year in terms of new openings. With 10 restaurants launching in the past 12 months, the brand - which a few years ago was regarded as being London-centric - now has more than 40 outlets operating throughout the UK as far south as Brighton and as far north as Glasgow.
Waters believes the company's success is down to its attempts to demystify sushi and make it accessible to the British public. He also thinks technology has made expansion easier, because today integrating a new restaurant into the countrywide network is straightforward.
"Technology has made the country smaller," he says. "We have a high-speed WAN and IP phone system, which both run over the Internet, so new outlets can be added in no time at all."
And while he admits "some people might wobble about having their phone system on a Windows network," he says the move has brought a number of advantages over and above the fact that managing one network is easier than dealing with several.
He points to the fact that the new set-up has enabled the company to establish its own centralised call centre on London's South Bank. From there orders for take-away and deliveries can be sent to any Yo! Sushi restaurant in the country.
Waters adds: "Previously we had each restaurant taking take-away orders, which was the last thing they wanted to do on a busy Saturday night. Then we paid a third party provider to run the call centre but decided to bring it back in-house after the IP phone system was installed.
"This means callers are put in touch with our own trained staff who know the Yo! Sushi product, rather than an agent who might also be taking calls for another 40 restaurants."
According to Waters, another issue Yo! Sushi has traditionally struggled with is the problem of identifying which dishes have sold well. This is because the chain uses a system where customers are charged on the number of coloured plates they have picked from a conveyor belt, rather than on specific ingredients they have chosen.
He said: "Because of our unique style of service we were not making a record of what customers liked - information we need for stock control and to drive our menu."
With increasing numbers of customers ordering hot food, such as sushi hand rolls, a pilot scheme is just about to be launched where waiting staff will be given hand-held devices to input ingredients details and thus, says Waters, "give a fuller picture of the food that is popular with customers."
Waters thinks having accurate, up-to-date information to hand is vital in enabling restaurant businesses is to react quickly to market trends. To this end, the company has also recently updated its reporting software, which pulls data from all restaurants into a central repository, to enable managers to request information on an hourly basis.
"We are drilling down into our business a lot more compared with a year ago and from this information we are able to see what parts of the day are busy in a particular restaurant and where we need to target promotions," Waters said.
"It's tempting not to invest in anything when times are hard but by spending a little bit on our data modelling we are in a much better position to make important decisions."
YO! SUSHI AND SOCIAL NETWORKING
Social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter have transformed how many of us use the Internet - a development that has not passed the team at Yo! Sushi by.
Last month a working group at the company, which includes Billy Waters, started looking at how their digital strategy should be updated.
Waters said: "Today online is all about engaging with customers rather than selling to them. We are looking at how we can use all the available channels out there - be it Facebook or Youtube - or rich media technologies such as blogs and videos.
"At the moment we have a fairly static site offering standard company information and I think we should now be trying to update it more regularly, so we give people a reason to keep visiting. Including an RSS feed is another idea we are kicking around as this would mean people would receive information from us rather than having to make the conscious effort to come to our site.
"We could also use this channel to send out promotions as this would enable us to measure redemptions more easily and assess what is working and what is not."
Commuting into London from his home in Hampshire, Waters has also seen an increasing number of people using their iPhones or Blackberrys to access Internet services over the past few years. For this reason he says any strategy will also have to ensure content can be easily delivered to hand-held devices.
He added: "Our initial approach will be to dip into a lot of ponds to see how each is received, rather than throwing all our resources into one big Twitter campaign, for example. That just doesn't make sense."