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Keeping It Connected

From the ever-growing number of devices customers are carrying around with them to mobilized employees armed with tablets, and onsite ordering kiosks, restaurant operators are realizing the importance of having a solid and reliable network. The ability to connect, the right amount of bandwidth, and plans for downtime are all factors to consider, and something operators need to continually evaluate — for both guests and employees.

“Everyone has a device now, and they all want the opportunity to connect to the Internet while in your restaurant,” says Chris Incorvati, director of cafÉ technology at Au Bon Pain, headquartered in Boston and operating 140 corporate-owned locations. “If you don’t have a good network it is definitely a competitive disadvantage.”

From the guest vantage point, restaurant networks are used for smartphones, tablets and even laptops so that patrons can check their email and other applications. In some cases they also want to stream music and video, says Rob Grimes, CEO of the International Food and Beverage Technology Association. On the operations side, ordering kiosks, connection to loyalty programs, tableside ordering, communicating with the corporate headquarters and more are tapping into bandwidth.

“Guests primarily are using the networks for general access as more and more foodservice establishments are becoming a second office,” he notes. “On the back-end side of things, there is online ordering instore and tableside devices connecting, which offer guest entertainment as well as revenue enhancement through purchases.”

Managing Bandwidth
At McMenamins Pubs and Breweries, restaurant managers use the network to communicate with their bosses, getting corporate assets, such as menus and recipes, and even getting pictures for social media, says Joe Frazier, Information Systems Manager at the company, based in Portland, Ore. and operating 57 locations.

“Bandwidth impacts employee effectiveness dramatically,” he shares. "They need to be able to work efficiently, with pages loading quickly and systems running fast. Their primary job is customer service so they need to be able to do their administration tasks quickly so they can help customers.”

Most operators segment or separate the guest network from the operations network, including the point-of-sale, for security purposes, and depending on the size of the location and the Wi-Fi usage, the amount of bandwidth needed can vary. But it’s something that must be re-evaluated often.

“It may sound like overkill, but I look at data usage on a monthly basis and then for trends on a quarterly basis,” Grimes says. “I look at spikes to determine their cause and spot the trends. The last thing I want is to bring on a new application and take all my bandwidth — especially if I have guests also connected to the system.”

McMenamins uses Comcast Business 50 MB of bandwidth for smaller and medium locations, and Comcast Enterprise fiber Internet and Metro Ethernet for larger venues, which can go up to 150 MB, Frazier says. In most locations, the guest side uses more bandwidth, and needs to be monitored, because the internal usage is stable.

“Over the years we have had to keep up with the times and upgrade because we put customer Wi-Fi in 10 years ago,” Frazier explains. “We recently went through and refreshed all the hardware because one access point that can handle five people wasn’t cutting it anymore, but the bandwidth for most places was enough.”

Guests are not heavy users of the Wi-Fi at most Au Bon Pain locations, and the company chose Comcast for guest Wi-Fi and Windstream for the POS and operations, says Incorvati. They evaluate bandwidth every couple of months to see how much traffic there is to avoid a slow down in service. Additionally, the company signed a deal with OLO to roll out online ordering from any device, and this will impact the POS network.

“In the last year, we upgraded POS systems to Heartland from an older product, and in the course of the rollout, we upgraded from a DSL line to a T1,” he explains. “Over time we will have to reevaluate because we have ordering kiosks and tablets for managers, and with the addition of online ordering, the need will increase.”

Security and Backup
Using industry standard hardware and software can help ensure security at the store level and connections to outside applications. PCI compliance is always key when dealing with credit card data, and both McMenamins and Au Bon Pain use Trustwave for security and control.

“We have multiple vendors working on security, and we use Trustwave, who specializes in PCI Compliance,” Frazier notes.

At Au Bon Pain, they also limit and control how employees access the network at the cafÉ, so they can use what they need, but are locked out of anything that would download a virus or cause a threat, Incorvati says.

“An unlocked PC to allow general Internet access and cruising of websites is a huge opening to allowing unwanted access to the network and harm to operations, the employees and guests,” Grimes explains.

It’s also important to have a backup in case a network goes down, especially for the POS. Au Bon Pain utilizes a back up Internet with a cable connection, and McMenamins offers portable Wi-Fi access points at some locations, although downtime has only occurred one or two times in the last seven years, Frazier says.

“Connectivity is too important today to be on a single system,” Grimes says. “Satellite backup as well as mobile are things to consider. But most providers will offer multiple access methods and backup included in their offerings.”
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