CHICAGO—Restaurateurs come from around the globe every year to the National Restaurant Association's Hotel, Motel & Restaurant Show to taste, smell and touch a dizzying array of food and drink. But this year the inedible items on display stole the show. Well, perhaps it's fairer to say they gave the event's 73,000 attendees a lot to look at between bites.
Be it a Web site that allows real-time employee background checks or tableside, self-service kiosks that help operators trim staff and speed service, multiple electronic exhibits in this year's show, held May 20-23, showed the foodservice business is advancing ever further into the high-tech age.
Learning about a potential employee's criminal history now can be had at the click of a mouse through the Web site of BackgroundChecks.com. According to company vice president Geoff Smith, what used to take phone calls, faxes, human runners and manual searches of county court house records now can be done in mere minutes from any computer with Internet access.
"Through our Web site, we can get criminal background information from all 50 states," Smith said. "A user pays an initial sign-up fee of $7.95 plus a sliding scale cost of $8 per search, based on the amount of information you want." If the search is simple, such as records from a local jurisdiction, the service costs less than a nationwide search.
The NRA predicted show attendance to be 73,000 people. The show was expected to be one of the busiest in recent years. (Photo by Fred Minnick)
"This is a very safe and quick method of making sure you're not hiring a dangerous person," said Smith, whose company is seven years old.
The Tableside Service Restaurant Kiosk debuted at the show. The 15-inch touchscreen customer ordering system allows operators to reduce service staff and give customers the option of shortening their visits.
"When you come to the restaurant, the person at the door would ask, 'Full-service or self-service?' And if they want self-service, they would take them to the table and show them this kiosk," said spokesperson Chante Bowser. "Since the kiosk takes the order, restaurants that use this would really only need runners for its express tables. So instead of having to staff five or six people working tables during lunches, you could have two or three."
Every menu choice, right down to specific beverages and side items, is available on screen. As soon as an order is submitted, a printout goes to the kitchen and/or bar area, where runners retrieve the made goods. Rather than hovering near tables waiting for guests' commands, staffers return to pick up areas to continually distribute food.
"Instead of a customer stopping somebody to say, 'Excuse me. Can I get something to drink?' they simply place their own order and the runner brings it."
To allow their guests the choice, Bowser said clients she's working with anticipate using the option only on some of their tables.
The company's first rollout is expected in August, though Bowser declined to name the client. She did say a mix of independent and chain operators at the show expressed a lot of interest.
"We've had a lot of local Chicago restaurants that are interested, people who said it would be great for pizza because the customer could choose the crust style, the toppings they want, their drinks, everything," she said.
Spot Runner.com showed off its easy-to-use Web-based service that allows operators to choose and customize TV advertisements drawn from an enormous library of pre-produced spots. The site also provides in-depth demographic information to guide operators in making decisions on what shows to run their ads with, as well as what time slots.
"We have a library of ads for any business under the sun, including pizza," Cohen said, as he brought up a pre-made pizza commercial onscreen. "What an owner can do is customize this with his logo or pictures of their storefront or special promotions. Then we go into the recording studio and do any voiceovers they want."
Once changed, Spot Runner sends an e-mail with a link to its Web site, where the operator can view and approve or change his commercial before it airs.
"It is completely self-serve on the Internet," he added. "It recommends different channels and times of day based on that product's demographic. It also suggests how much you should spend and how frequently you should run your ads. It will even tell you what demographic watches what shows."
When, during the demo, the site's "recommendation engine" suggested running the pizza spot on CNBC, but Cohen overrode that selection by choosing something more befitting of the pizza demographic, a Friday spot on Comedy Central.
"We can do an ad in as fast as 48
On May 22, President Bush made a surprise visit to the show. After his speech, he migled with the crowd. (Photo courtesy of the White House.) Read also President Bush speaks at NRA Show
Healthydiningfinder.com unveiled its new Web site designed to help restaurateurs promote healthful menu choices.
The company Healthy Dining was a printer of books full of healthful options served in a handful of large California cities. But the company saw a much larger opportunity to use the Web so restaurants nationwide could share their information. With help from a grant from the Centers for Disease Control, which is working to fight America's obesity problem, HealthyFinderDining.com was developed in partnership with the NRA.
"The CDC was particularly interested in restaurant solutions since people eat out so much—an average of 5.3 times a week, said Erica Bohm, vice president and director of strategic partnerships for Healthy Dining. Right now we are in the phase of introducing healthydiningfinder.com to restaurants so they can understand what it does." (To see the site, visit http://healthydiningfinder.com/demo/)
Like packaged foods, which identify nutritional content such as calories, fat and sodium content, healthydiningfinder.com allows restaurants to post that information on the Web for diet-conscious consumers.
Customers can go to the site and search by restaurant name, by cuisine, by city, by zip code, by price or by distance from a particular point to find those dishes that are fine for the waistline. Restaurants listed on the site can post information for as many as 10 dishes.
"Most large QSRs and large national chains have that information on their sites, but the smaller independents generally don't," Bohm said. "When we say healthy, we're not saying extreme. This is for mainstream restaurants, not health-food restaurants. Most every restaurant has dishes on the menu that fit our criteria."
The criteria include dishes with a maximum of: 750 calories each; 25 grams of fat; and no more than 1/3 of that fat from the saturated variety. Bohm said the company wants dishes to meet at least two of those three criteria.
Restaurants listed on the site will get exposure in a mass media blitz set to begin—you guessed it—during the January New Year's resolution season. Member restaurants will be promoted in local media and to local health professionals, who can recommend them to patients.
"Probably 90 percent of restaurants out there have some items that can work for this," Bohm said. "Pizza with vegetable toppings, or chicken sandwiches, salads, soups and wraps, too. There are more healthy items on menus than most people realize."