Twenty-two years ago, Stan McCabe had an idea for turning chaos into order.
From his own experience working for Boston Pizza and watching employees at other pizzerias, McCabe noticed how phone-in food orders often caused cooks to stop making pizzas, leave the line to answer it, take the order, and then attempt to resume the pace. He surmised that each such stop set the whole cycle back one to two minutes, and when added up over an entire shift, the entire crew could drop behind by as much 30 minutes.
"When you're trying to make 30-minute delivery times, you're going to be in trouble," said McCabe, president and CEO of oneSystem, which he co-founded with Gerald Lindenbach in 1985 in their hometown of Prince George, British Columbia. "That can kill you to get that far behind."
In 1980, Lindenbach and McCabe convinced several restaurateurs that they could handle all their phone orders through a separate one-number call center, dispatch the order and manage its delivery.
The idea worked well -- enough to attract the business of 35 restaurants -- but McCabe knew it needed streamlining. In 1985, the streamlined edition took the name of oneSystem.
"We knew the whole process should be automated, that it needed some sort of (electronic) menuing system to make it really smooth," said McCabe. "What we did before was simple, but it took a lot of labor to make it work."
In 1987, oneSystem's first electronically automated system took shape at a now-defunct Rockville, Md. pizza chain. In each store was a small laptop computer that received orders transmitted via modem from a call center where the order was taken by an operator. The order was printed out and taken to the make line, but not always so smoothly.
"We used to joke that not only was (the U.S.) about 200 years old at the time, so was the phone system," said McCabe, with an easy laugh. "We sometimes couldn't transmit across the room -- literally. The phone system was that tough to work with."
Tweaking it, he said, took Lindenbach six weeks to complete.
In just a few years, however, reliability problems began to disappear as advanced point-of-sale systems in pizza stores became more common. Call centers not only received customer orders, they also retrieved store-level data, such as each order's progress. That two-way communication allowed a manager at the call center to direct the flow of orders to other stores if a bottleneck developed.
"It's that bi-directional communication that lets them know what's going on in every store," McCabe said. "It allows the call center to talk to (each store's) P.O.S. all the time -- and nobody at the store has to pick up a phone."
Such simplicity of order management is oneSystem's stock in trade. Other than proprietary systems built by chains such as Tulsa-based Mazzio's, it currently has no competition in the pizza call center market.
That, McCabe is quick to admit, is partly due to the fact that his company's product is a niche market item. For an operator to make it cost effective, he needs a minimum of 10 to 20 stores, which narrows oneSystem's potential customer base to fewer than 150 companies worldwide.
He also believes many pizza companies still view the technology with a mix of skepticism and ignorance.
"This is a different method of doing business that not everyone understands, and you have to decide if it's for you," McCabe said. "But if you know how to use it, it's a fierce weapon in the right hands."
Dan Collier, president and CEO of 18-store Rusty's Pizza, in Santa Barbara, Calif., has mastered it.
"Even though he's one of the co-owners, I still can call him any time ... for questions about what our next step should be."
"I definitely would not go back to being without it," said Collier, who has used oneSystem for four years. "The first couple of years we had it, we had high-30-percent increases in deliveries, and it paid for itself in two years."
Collier said that trying to engineer his own one-number center for Rusty's, and purchase another one-number system that ultimately failed, cost the company a small fortune.
"We'd spent $100,000 trying to get where we are now with oneSystem," said Collier. "Other than upgrades, there are no bumps whatsoever. It doesn't lock up or have any hitches."
The Toronto-based Afton Food Group is in the process of rolling out a one-number call system for its 241 Pizza chain. But unlike a lot of one-number projects, 241's is logistically complex; it will service all of Canada, not just a single city.
"This system will go over five time zones, so you're talking about a major project," said Bob MacDonald, CEO of Afton. "We felt strongly that if we were going to tie together a national chain, that it was extremely important to take charge of the customer ordering situation. We also believe it will tie beautifully into a national ad campaign."
Prominently positioned in oneSystem's print ad campaign is the center it set up for Cincinnati-based La Rosa's Pizza. When launched 11 years ago, the chain had a 17 percent share of the Cincy market. Today that figure has grown to 52 percent, drawn from $96 million in sales from 50 stores.
"That call center seats 140, and it's staffed by 350 people," McCabe said. "They've not added a single store since we put it in, but their volume has grown tremendously. They absolutely dominate Cincinnati."
Despite oneSystem's success, it has met some unexpected failures. In Cleveland, where a call center was set up to service the city and many outlying areas, an unexpected language barrier arose. Many of the center's employees were inner-city youth who struggled to decipher the country accents of rural customers.
"Nobody could understand anybody, and it basically was a disaster," McCabe said. "Those are the kinds of things you don't think of ahead of time, but we learned that lesson really well."
Anticipating language differences in California, Rusty's hires only operators who are fluent in both Spanish and English, and at a Domino's Pizza franchisee in Dallas, there is a separate one-number line for Spanish-speaking customers.
Outside the System
At 47, McCabe has helped build a successful though small company that employs 24 and grosses about $3 million a year in sales of its customized software. (The P.O.S. hardware installed by oneSystem bears the company's name, but it is manufactured and sold to each customer by a third party, and not counted on oneSystem's books.)
According to both MacDonald and Collier, the fact that oneSystem is small is a good thing. Service is very good, and McCabe and Lindenbach remain highly accessible.
"Even though he's one of the co-owners, I still can call him any time and get what I need from him," said Collier. "He's very available to me for questions about what our next step should be."
MacDonald said McCabe is "very much a people person" who is both "forthright and supportive of what we're doing here. Any time we've had glitches in the system, he and his people have been very supportive."
Such service, however, is paid for mostly in McCabe's time. He spends almost 250 days a year on the road, traveling to work with customers as far-away as Brunei, Iceland and Denmark. The schedule, he admits, is "tough, but fun, too," and slowing down a bit is a constant consideration.
Though his company is based in Prince George, B.C., he treats he and wife, Laiki, to a more temperate Venice, Fla., home.
"Most Canadians want to move to Florida or Hawaii," McCabe began, "and since I'm home only about 100 days a year, I should at least live some place where it's warm, right?"
Though retirement is several years away, McCabe is already making plans for more travels. When the company was founded, he and Lindenbach set aside a portion of its proceeds to support international Christian mission work. And now both men are savoring the chance to go abroad.
"Every company has to have a goal bigger than itself, and that's always been ours," said McCabe. "We went to get to the point where we can field missionaries ourselves, and after that, at some point, we want to go. That'll be different, don't you think?"