Computer crash contingency

When one of Hap Squire's Pizza Inn units lost its POS system, it also lost some sales. A software glitch triggered the crash, and the crew quickly had to switch to order-taking the old-fashioned way: with handwritten tickets.

"I grabbed pad and pencil and told everybody to round off menu prices — if it was $4.99, sell it to them for $5 including tax to keep it simple," said Squires, a San Antonio-based franchisee of four Pizza Inns and two McAlister's Delis. "I was going to just eat the tax to keep things going."

But then came another operational hiccup caused by the computer conundrum.

"We were rocking and rolling, getting orders out, and then we discovered that we couldn't get in the cash drawer," Squires said. "Finally I just told all our customers that it was their lucky day. It was all no charge. Fortunately there were only 15 people in the restaurant."

It was also

What's Important

Modern POS systems crash less than their predecessors, but crash they do. Having a plan to keep the business running when that happens is essential.

Some operators recommend keeping a stash of pencils, paper pads and calculators handy to handle orders. Others have used cash registers at the ready.

The latest POS systems are configured to eliminate data loss in the event of a crash. Some tie kitchen printers to computer networks so a single-terminal crash won't stop the printer.

fortunate that the incident occurred just 30 minutes before closing time. No more sales would be lost that night.

Such "crash stories" are numerous in pizza circles, but advanced technology continues to reduce their frequency. Squires noted that the POS systems docked in his two full-service Pizza Inn locations have done well, including quick recoveries from crashes. In every case, they've rebooted and recovered without any data loss in about 15 minutes.

"When we get a call about the system going down, it's usually due to a power outage," said Carl Hendley, call center supervisor for Speedline, which is staffed by 16 people answering phones. "But those calls are a rare occurrence. Most calls are about menu changes or how to set up functions due to a new system purchase or an upgrade. When we do get those calls, we tell the user to check for hardware or connectivity problems. If it's a connection issue, a simple reboot normally gets the system back online."

As good as a system may be, calls to the help desk often are predicated by user error, not system malfunction.

"Usually, it's not so much a system problem as much as it is an external problem," Squires said. "One time, an employee had tried to switch printers and knocked some wires loose and the system lost all its communication function."

Critical details

Knowing what to do when the POS goes kaput — even temporarily — is critical. Getting back online is the end goal, but keeping the cash flowing in the meantime is as important. This usually requires a supply of guest checks stashed where shift managers can access them. Guest checks should be sequentially numbered to track orders and sales for order re-entry when the POS is restored.

As seen with Squires' experience, getting to the cash also is crucial.

"When a system crashes, there should be some measures in place to keep the business going," said Laura Gaudin, director of sales for Houston-based Revention. "The first thing is to make sure you can open the cash drawer. You always want to make sure you have a key available and in your safe. Many people take their cash drawer keys and put them in the drawer figuring they will never need them."

Squires recommends operators keep a supply of simple calculators handy. "When a system goes down, not only do employees need to know prices, but they need to add it up correctly and figure tax."

Uninterrupted power supplies on a couple of the terminals also are recommended to ensure ongoing operations such as ticket printing. In case of power outages or surges, surge protectors and a universal power supply (UPS) allow the system enough time to shut down properly.

As Squires discussed how to handle POS crashes, he realized his own plan probably needs some rehearsal with staff.

"We keep an old cash register in each store and the plan is to use it, along with paper tickets, if the POS completely crashes," Squires said. "My managers knew about the plan, but not necessarily where the old register was, or if employees knew about the plan. It's like having a spare tire: You know where the spare is in case of a flat, but where's the jack?"

Preventative procedures

A system crash can cause more dismay than mere lost sales. Considering the value of data from daily transactions stored in the system, operators should make Herculean efforts to avoid losing it — which can happen each time the system crashes.

"There are a lot of POS systems out there that have only one server.

start quoteWe were rocking and rolling, getting orders out, and then we discovered that we couldn't get in the cash drawer. Finally I just told all our customers that it was their lucky day. It was all no charge. Fortunately there were only 15 people in the restaurant.end quote

— Hap Squires, Pizza Inn franchisee

And if your server goes down you're just out of luck," said Lori Sims, vice president of sales for Indianapolis-based Custom Computing Inc., which installs and services Touch Express POS software. "That was a huge complaint we heard a long time ago from operators. We went to a peer-to-peer network that allowed us to have multiple boxes that act as backup servers. Throughout the day, programs copy data to all the other boxes so that, in the event that the hard drive with the database goes out, the loss of data is minimal."

Speedline suggests even low-volume operators purchase two terminal systems to ensure one is running if the other goes down.

"Kitchen printers are always a huge problem, because if that primary computer goes down, generally the kitchen printers are running off of that computer," Gaudin said. A POS system, she added, acts much like a strand of Christmas tree lights that goes out because of a single bad bulb. "Once that computer goes down, suddenly you're forced to re-route tickets."

Addressing this problem is the advent of Internet protocol (IP) printers. Their inherent benefit is that they're never connected to any one PC. Instead, IP printers are connected to the network, thus preventing any communication snags.

Crash culprits also involve computer viruses downloaded via the Internet, a relatively new problem in restaurants. Operators should consider installing security software, or firewalls, on their network to reduce the chance of such problems, as well as hacking. For these and other Internet-related calls, the POS provider becomes something of a surrogate ISP consultant.

"If operators are going to spend $15,000 to $20,000 on a system and they're paying you an annual amount for support, there is some responsibility on the POS companies' part to ensure that the stores have all the correct updates, that the system is secure and locked down," Gaudin said. "That way, they're truly benefiting from the technology sold to them."

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