Fair warning to delivery drivers at Big Cheese Pizza: Big Sister is watching.

Every move you make, every order you take, Jennifer Dowling will be monitoring you.

No, it's not as sinister as it might sound. Dowling and her partners, who own Big Cheese and two other restaurants in Gallup, N.M., merely are perfecting their pizza delivery system via computer; she knows when every delivery order comes in, how quickly it was cooked, when it left the restaurant, which driver took it and when he returned — without ever setting foot in the store.

How does she do it? Big Cheese's POS system knows all and tells all in real time, on demand and from anywhere Dowling has Web access.

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FireFly POS

"In accessing that information, we find out a lot," said Dowling. Big Cheese is mostly a dine-in concept, but it's prepping for a significant delivery push. The POS system is playing a key role in pinpointing trouble spots ahead of time. "It showed us our drivers weren't tagging out when taking a delivery, but that they were doing it when they came back from a run. All our orders showed 1 minute delivery times, but every delivery was showing up as late. That was a problem."

The POS system at Louisville, Ky.'s, Wick's Pizza does the same for Richard Bobo. Whether he's plugged into the office network or surfing the Web via wireless hookup at a coffee shop, he can read sales reports, run payroll and use e-mail to send inter-store communiqués.

"If I need to communicate with the drivers or bartenders or managers or just certain individuals, I can send e-mails just to them about things only they need to know," said Bobo, who oversees office administration for the four-unit company. "It's just like being at the store without having to be there. It's great."

Providing pizza operators a chance to get out of the store while staying connected was a central focus for FireFly Technologies, when it developed its Phoenix POS system. Partner Duessa Holscher said operators told her that creating marketing plans and new menus wasn't conducive to the hectic pace of a pizzeria, plus they found it difficult to leave the store in others' hands. They needed some way to get away, while staying connected to their businesses at the same time.

"Sometimes it's easier to analyze your business by stepping out of the chaos," said Holscher, whose company is in Hillsboro, Ore. "You can do those things you feel you don't normally have time for, but you still can watch what's going on the whole time. ... You have the ability to check in and see if anything unusual is happening."

Some POS systems can be programmed to alert operators when problems arise, such as employees who are close to going into overtime, or if order throughput slows unacceptably.

Don Dixon, a four-store Hungry Howie's franchisee in Sarasota, Fla., said his customers are encouraged to call his personal cell phone if they have a problem. And if he gets such a call, his POS system allows him to log in and sniff out the problem. "If

What's Important

Modern POS systems allow operators to "mind the store" while not even being there.

From a home computer, an operator can gain full access to the data in his POS system, spot problems and make adjustments — often without users at the store knowing he has access.

The need for greater access to their data, plus the growth of multi-store operations, has operators connecting to the Internet and to their stores via broadband.

somebody calls and says his pizza took an hour to get there, and the store hasn't called me to tell me about the problem, I can go online, get into the system and figure out whether it was a fluke or a real problem I need to address."

The only drawback, he said, is the remote access software he uses has to take over one of the store's POS terminals for him to conduct an investigation. Dowling's system, on the other hand, allows her to become a ghost in the machine, moving about invisibly.

"When I dial in, my computer becomes a terminal and no one knows I'm there," she said. "If the store manager is on the terminal, we can access the program at the same time, which makes it much easier when we're both trying to make changes."

Polling station

Though single-store owners can take advantage of a modern POS system's remote management capabilities, multiple-unit operators benefit most from the ability to access data from all units automatically.

Scott Dunlop, who oversees education and project management for PixelPoint, a POS software maker in Toronto, said its product manages store polling and data updates on automated schedules set typically outside of business hours. Any change in programming (as complex as code changes or as simple as a menu update) is managed by the software's replication agent and is disseminated to all stores on the system.

Additionally, each in-store POS system is programmed to connect directly to a server at a pizza company's headquarters and upload any requested data, such as daily sales, labor or inventory.

Dunlop said multi-unit operators, especially, "like the uniformity. So if they go from one store to another, the database will always be the same, which certainly makes it easy for training."

That cross-company replication also can protect the company from fraud. Wick's Bobo uses the system to notify managers and drivers of customers who have written bad checks.

And should a driver be robbed while working, other stores could be notified immediately and potentially avoid delivering to the address in the future.

What does appear more necessary than ever is the requirement that POS systems be not only Internet friendly, but have broadband access to move information quickly and in real time. Every software manufacturer interviewed said it routinely made changes and updates to customers' systems via the Internet. Doing that via dial-up, Dunlop said, can be slow, tricky and frustrating for clients and providers. Though broadband access costs two to three times more than dial-up, slower and less-reliable connections make it difficult for remote updating, forcing operators to wait for mailed CD or DVD updates and install them themselves.

Lori Sims, vice president of sales and marketing for Indianapolis-based Touch Express by Custom Computing, said her multi-store customers say they want greater access to their stores' data, but not all of them see the need for its delivery via an always-on, real-time broadband connection. Very few independent clients, she added, ever mention features beyond what they use in the store, and likely care little about using the Web for their businesses.

"Though our larger clients do have outside polling systems, we're in the beginning stages of developing software that would allow them to get their information from a Web site," Sims said. "But your one- and two-store operators are in their stores all the time, they know what's going on, and so we don't get a lot of requests from them for outside access."

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