CHICAGO -- You don't want to build and maintain a Web site, but you do want to catch the online ordering wave while it's rising.
But you run a pizza shop, for crying out loud, not a computer center.
Want to have your cake and eat it to?
Sam Asano believes you can.
Asano, founder and president of America Takeout, unveiled his Woburn, Mass., company's iPrinter and Web order system at the National Restaurant Association Show, held May 18-22, at Chicago's McCormick Center. Through America Takeout's Web site, customers place orders that are delivered electronically and printed out at the restaurant of their choice.
"It comes to the printer using your existing phone line," said Asano, demonstrating the iPrinter. As the paper flowed from the machine, a large red light atop the printer flashed.
America Takeout's Sam Asano (foreground) and Gary Pihl demonstrate the company's computer-free Web-order system.
The service, which will launch in September, begins with the placement of an operator's menu on Takeout America's site. The company's staff designs a Web page using a restaurant's identifiable marks, inputs all the menu's prices and descriptions and then applies that to a template (containing, for example, boxes to check for toppings, etc.) that allows a detailed order to be taken.
Once the customer completes the order, his debit or credit card is approved, and the order is sent to the store.
Asked whether the printer's use of a phone line would yield busy signals for call-in customers, Asano's associate, Gary Pihl, said the transaction time is less than two seconds long, almost too brief interrupt service. The good problem to have, he added, would be such a high volume of Internet orders that an operator would have to add a dedicated phone line.
"The point is that it's so much shorter than taking an order over the phone, which is a couple of minutes," Pihl said. "At a second-and-a-half, it's fine to share the line."
Getting customers to see a restaurant's menu at the site requires a team effort between America Takeout and the operator. America Takeout will advertise its service in newspapers and encourage customers to see if area operations are subscribers. Individual operators, Asano said, must market the fact that their store offers the service.
Ideally, said Pihl, "we'd like to be as well known as the Yellow Pages. When they want takeout, we want them to go to us any time and from any place."
Since the service is Internet based, he added, it doesn't matter where the customer is as long as a restaurant in his area uses America Takeout. Such ubiquity, he said, will work particularly well for travelers.
"We were told by Hilton Hotels that their customers generally want places that deliver, because they might not have a rental car or they're tired and don't want to go out," Pihl said. "All they have to do is log on.
Millions to be Served
According to Asano, half of the $400-billion-a-year restaurant industry's orders are takeout, and he estimates that within three years, 15 percent ($30 billion) of those will come through the Internet. Web-savvy college students, he added, will drive that trend.
"You go to a college campus, and all the students are on computers with high-speed lines, and 4 million of them graduate every year," he said. "It's also estimated that half of Americans are online -- more than 100 million people. That's huge potential."
Asano said electronic communication already has changed the way people learn about and interact with restaurants: they view menus online before choosing where to eat, and they make reservations online and download directions via the Internet. Ordering food -- as they do clothes, books and CDs -- he added, is a natural progression.
America Takeout's iPrinter.
"Online ordering is marching toward you big time, and you have to claim your stake now," Asano said.
Using his Web site and iPrinter, Asano said, removes multiple opportunities for miscommunication in the order-taking process:
* Web orders allow customers to order at their own pace.
* Unlike handwritten orders, printouts make it completely clear what the customer wants.
* Staffs with workers whose native language isn't English won't face communications breakdowns.
"You also don't have to deal with trying to hear the customer on the phone when the restaurant is loud," Pihl said. "With a printout, there's no question you have the right order."
Printouts also remove the annoyance of a ringing phone and the interruption to the work flow caused by answering it.
The printer also eliminates common Web-order challenges, such as receiving orders through e-mail, third-party fax or voice relay.
Point-of-sale systems that accept and integrate online orders into the normal flow do exist, but they're typically more costly systems and/or their software must be rewritten to handle that data.
For its cost and simplicity, those hurdles make the iPrinter system an affordable option. For $300 up front and $20 a month, an operator gets the printer and his menu placed online. Four menu changes (such as for price updates or menu additions) are allowed per year; but other changes and special offers added to that operator's menu page cost extra.
"This is not high technology, this is appropriate technology," Asano said during a separate presentation on computers in restaurants at the NRA show. "You are not computer people, you are good restaurateurs. That's your business."
Carl English, founder and CEO of POS maker Dinerware, said Asano's assessment of "appropriate technology" was correct. A former Microsoft programmer, English said operators should only use technology that aides, rather than changes, their operations.
"Technology shouldn't be Frankensteined into your business, it should flow neatly into your business," said English, who spoke during the same presentation. "It should make many marginal efficiency improvements that make the whole business run more smoothly."