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Up To Speed


In the restaurant industry, speed can become a way of life. Whether it is timing the drive-thru at a quick-service chain, kitchen timers at a fast-casual restaurant, or wait times for the casual diner, nearly all restaurants keep close track of speed and efficiency. For the foodservice industry, time really is money and any good restaurant manager recognizes that speedy service is an essential ingredient in the delivery of an enjoyable dining experience for guests.

While every restaurant keeps a close eye on speed, that approach does not always carry over to the corporate office, and even less frequently to its technology projects. For all the efficiency created in the restaurant, until recently many are loath to make the same adjustments at the corporate level. Finally, however, the industry-wide push to become efficient is reaching every point of restaurant company operations.

According to the forthcoming restaurant industry technology study, "Delivering Restaurant Efficiency," published by Hospitality Technology magazine, 61 percent of study respondents indicate that productivity/efficiency is a "very important" driver for information technology projects. From top to bottom, restaurants are streamlining systems, management and operations. The second most important driverÃ.‚¬"cost-savingsÃ.‚¬"lags well behind, with less than half the respondents indicating it was a "very important" driver for current IT projects.

Still, the study raises a significant question: How do technology projects play into a restaurant companyÃ.‚¬™s focus on efficiency? And, how does rolling out a new IT system drive efficiency for a restaurant company? While better productivity or efficiency may be the goal of a technology project, the end result can sometimes be less clear.

To answer these questions, I recently paid a visit to the Sbarro company headquarters in Melville, New York, to speak with Richard Guariglia, chief information officer and director of information systems for the privately held restaurant company. Sbarro had recently completed a brand new point-of-sale (POS) software and hardware roll out to 488 of its 489 company-owned QSR locations (the sole remaining restaurant is located in Louisiana and has been closed since Hurricane Katrina). The entire roll out took three months to complete.

The need for speed

For Sbarro, there was little doubt that they needed a new POS. The original DOS-based green screen POS was 15 years old and showing its age. Adding new menu items meant removing old ones; there just wasnÃ.‚¬™t any space in the system. Moreover, the system had been created at a time when Sbarro had a much larger staff. Following a few rounds of post-9/11 layoffs, Sbarro was running a far leaner IT department, Guariglia explains. Supporting the aged system was a constant cause of corporate and restaurant level aggravation. "It was very limited, and was not dynamic at all. Our managers were frustrated with it," he explains.

A few months after joining Sbarro in the Fall of 2004, Guariglia began shopping for a new POS, but almost immediately, the goal of a 2006 roll out had been revamped and sped up.

Adding to the complexity of the project, was its newness. Having gone its own way for 15 years, few at Sbarro had any knowledge of the current point-of-sale industry. Moreover, Guariglia came to Sbarro as part of a new team of outside corporate executives. Some came with experience at other major restaurant companies, but Guariglia was getting his first taste of foodservice, having risen to the CIO level in the staffing and banking industries.

With the help of an outside consultant, Guariglia quickly got up to speed. "The roll out was very aggressive," Guariglia recalls. Sbarro did its first pilot in May 2005 and began rolling out in July. By mid-OctoberÃ.‚¬"15 weeks laterÃ.‚¬"the new hardware and software was in place at nearly all of the Sbarro restaurants.

Team building

The timing for the roll out was key and quickly had become an operational necessity. Without a new POS Sbarro could not easily accept credit cards nor gift cards, two key priorities of the new management. Moreover, any new technology for Sbarro needs to be implemented before the November season starts. With the vast majority of Sbarro locations situated in malls, the Christmas shopping season is also high season for Sbarro restaurants. Speed was essential for the roll out and its timing would in large part dictate its success.

Another key concern for Guariglia was building the IT staff into a more cohesive team. "Sbarro went through two layoffs, so IT was undersized when I arrived," he explains. "During that time, IT management had stopped having staff meetings and I had to get them to work together. That was the biggest challenge."

Though new to the position, Guariglia worked quickly to get the right people in place and in the right positions so that the IT department could handle the the roll out. Not surprisingly, the technology project roll out of new POS, gift card and credit card systems took top priority.

In some weeks, Sbarro converted more than fifty restaurants to the new POS. "I am really proud of our staff," Guariglia insists. "People were working full days and then going home, taking a short nap only to get up and work from 2 AM to 5 AM on West Coast stores."

One of the new realities for Sbarro was the need to depend more on its technology partners to help assist in the roll out, training and the follow-up Help Desk. "The partnership with our technology vendors is very important," Guariglia notes. "The help desk becomes a part of your organization."

Getting infrastructure right

According to Guariglia, Sbarro has also been upgrading another essential part of its technology infrastructure: network connectivity. With the hope of utilizing enterprise reporting, speeding credit and gift card authorization and improving company-wide communications, Sbarro has been rapidly upgrading to DSL and other forms of broadband connectivity at every possible location.

Already, Sbarro has rolled out broadband DSL to 450 units and has experimented with cellular-based broadband networks for the rest. Laggard locations have been limited less by SbarroÃ.‚¬™s lack of desire than by forces beyond SbarroÃ.‚¬™s control: mall managers or the lack of DSL availability. In fact, getting technology into Sbarro restaurants can often be a delicate proposition: Many malls restrict after hours work and prohibit satellite dishes on the roof.

Now that the company has a new POS system in place, and broadband connectivity nearly everywhere, Sbarro is beginning to move much faster on some of its key strategic initiatives. The company has been transformed by the new possibilities that have been opened. After years of being limited by the older POS, Sbarro management has quickly developed a laundry list of new use projects. Providing e-mail in the restaurants was a seemingly small, yet important development, as is the ongoing creation of a company intranet portal for company-wide messaging.

Next up is tinkering with the menu. "Our managers want to test more products," explains Guariglia. "It was something we couldnÃ.‚¬™t easily do with the limitations in our old POS system."

Catering is another area that Sbarro now hopes to grow. "That was something that wasnÃ.‚¬™t pervasive last year and we were missing an opportunity." And these changes are only the beginning. "We also want to develop sophisticated reporting," Guariglia adds. "One of our upcoming projects is creating a data warehouse. It is ambitious with our limited staff, but we are sending them out for training and supplementing the development with consultants."

Security concerns

The rapid pace of new technology implementations, also has created some headaches and concerns for Sbarro. One of the keys is making sure the restaurant level managers know how to take advantage of the capabilities of the new systems. In a system with nearly 500 GMs, system functionalityÃ.‚¬"whether it is the POS or the e-mail systemÃ.‚¬"must be designed for the least computer literate.

More worrisome for Guariglia is protecting SbarroÃ.‚¬™s systems and ensuring that network security is not breached. "It scares the hell out of me," he readily admits. "Many of the concerns are new to us and are new to our technology vendors as well. We put a lot of store information over the broadband connection."

Now that Sbarro locations are online, Guariglia limits Internet usage to designated websites and maintain strict controls over what unit-level managers can do or see in the system.

Still the problem is an industry-wide one. Restaurants have been slow to recognize the threats from security breaches. "Unfortunately, we donÃ.‚¬™t, as an industry, have the resources to do what we need to do," Guariglia argues. "People could intercept sensitive data and a hacker could cause havoc. We have to lock that down."

For Sbarro, the answer is to make security a higher priority precisely at the same time new systems are being implemented, and the company is implementing systems to development wider access to critical information. And, bringing on new partners does not mean the restaurant needs to rely solely on their security features. "We are becoming stricter in terms of security than most of our technology vendors," he adds.

In fact, if there is anything that is slowing down Sbarro, it is the security checks now in place. With new technologies in place, Sbarro is finally moving fast, but doing so without opening itself to danger. The trick it seems is getting up to speed, but not moving too fast.

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