When it comes to IT operations of multi-unit restaurant chains, paper has long been the chef's special. Chains have relied on it to communicate sales and cost data, collect and disseminate benefits information and operations processes, update recipes and more. That has meant time delays to print and send reports and the need to summarize data to keep a limit on paper volume.

Thanks to robust corporate networks and intranets, that's changing. Data can be served the way it was meant to be: well done, but with the ability to drill down into the raw ingredients to truly understand business trends. Employees can access appropriate levels of up-to-date data from a single source, so everyone is working from one set of facts. Messaging can be centralized, so operations, training and other processes are uniform.

Intranet is golden at Ruby's
A single version of the truth is one benefit being reaped by 766-unit Ruby Tuesday through its portal, which has evolved steadily since its 2000 launch. "We use our reporting tool for more than just front-end reporting," notes John Doyle, director of IT support systems. "We feed our ERP [enterprise resource planning] from the data that gets pulled in," using a custom back-end application to reconcile data. "That gets us efficiency. We can access the data faster and there is one less custom integration." The ERP is Geac's SmartStream (geac.com).

Another early portal application was document management, including a company directory, policies, IT documents, culinary documents, an operations manual, and a version manager to log older copies. Today, computer-based training and a learning management system are also delivered via the portal. A human resources application resides at the point of service, but the portal is used to update the ERP and payroll system at the same time as local records.

Ruby Tuesday uses Microsoft's SharePoint Portal Server (microsoft.com) for document management and Micros' mymicros.net as a reporting engine to pull data from stores into a data center, with a modified front end to display data. The company is slowly morphing to Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services to write, manage and deliver interactive reports as a Web service.

"Most restaurants overwhelm managers with raw data," says Doyle. "We create a set of reports that's exception-based, showing all they need to know about the business in a quick dashboard and the ability to drill down and investigate areas where there are problems," even down to line items on an individual check."Information is near real time, actionable and exception-based," says Doyle. "They're getting information they need in time to make decisions."

Portal is A-OK at BJ's
Microsoft's SharePoint is the foundation of the internally hosted portal launched within the past year by BJ's Restaurants, operator of 35 restaurants, grills and breweries. What appears to users as one seamless portal is actually two brought together. CTUIT hosts one portion, for data polling and business intelligence, delivering data such as sales, labor and product mix. BJ's hosts the other, enabling user forums, news groups and document management. Users can subscribe to receive particular document types via email.

"The user experience has to be as seamless as possible," says Brian Pearson, director of information services for BJ's.
Authorized users can also access weekly general ledger and profit and loss statements from the chain's Microsoft Business Solutions-Solomon ERP system via the portal. Microsoft Outlook and Exchange enable routing of forms for authorization; users can even email a help address and have forms sent to their in-boxes.

In mid-2005 BJ's plans to offer employees home PC access to human resources and document management applications. Other new or planned applications this year include labor management, POS training, recipe management, and Shopper Scores, to gain a more balanced
perspective of overall business unit performance.

Tecton imparts philosophy via intranet
Tecton Hospitality, manager of 20 branded and independent properties, is currently revamping its intranet. Tecton's focus is on promoting best practices and cohesion among its associates, complementing the intranets of clients' hotel brands. So its first content was its standard operating procedures, now enhanced to allow managers to post best practices to share with other properties, along with a six-sigma-like improvement program. Email alerts are sent when new practices are posted.

"That made it more efficient," says Douglas Carrillo, vice president sales and marketing for Tecton. "We've seen a big increase in usage since the e-mail alerts," since they don't require the manager to surf the Internet to find ideas. The intranet portal was created by Grove Networks (grovenetworksinc.com) using the open source PHP Web scripting language.

Training is delivered on the intranet via an alliance with a third party training company, which also enables employees to take hospitality college-level courses online. Users can also access information about Tecton, including jobs listings and a photo gallery, and the company will add a supplier resource directory, including some requisitions, with its next generation. That upgrade will also include uploads and downloads of forecasts and other forms, replacing emailing. Eventually boutique properties will be able to share demographic data for marketing uses.

As a third party management company, "we have to be sensitive to the fact that a lot of data is proprietary," Carrillo says. "We share whatever we can," about how to run hotels according to the Tecton philosophy.

While each operation's applications may be different, buy-in is key to implementing any intranet application, says Ruby Tuesday's Doyle. "Get senior leadership in operations to own the project and drive requirements, and involve regular cooks and waitresses for usability and acceptance."

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