2015.01 | mashgin

CaptureA new technology from mashgin promises to simplify the cafeteria line. Clients set their food on a scan table and the system identifies all of the food items with an imaging system, looks them up in a product base, calculates the total and charges the client automatically.

From the video demonstration, mashgin’s simplicity should make it a winner with customers. The concept works fast and simply, as it would need to do in this challenging retail environment. There are a number of factors which will influence this concept’s success as a full blown product.

Price – A POS for this type of environment is relatively inexpensive and can probably be had for $1000 – much less if a simple ECR is used. If this device can be had for that price range it could certainly be a winner. If significantly more expensive, it may be tough to win over cost conscious operators.

One could argue that a cashier could be removed from the equation to drive a huge ROI, but it will require a huge leap of faith for an operator to believe that all clients can be trusted to place all items on the scanner. The fear of shrink will probably mean a longer timeline to remove a cashier.

Another potential selling point is utilizing multiple devices with one cashier overseeing them as is done with self-checkout implementations. This is a more viable argument and potentially a better use of the cashier resources.

Payments – My experience with small transactions is that the longest element is tendering, and not scanning. While that seems counter-intuitive, tendering is never completed with a simple universal system in the real world. People pay with cash, credit, debit, and mobile devices now.

It will be important to incorporate payment into the system in a simple way that keeps flow moving.  The concept solution shown assumes a mobile solution or use of a credit card with an MSR slot.  Apple Pay or NFC cards could work well here. The the MSR card reader slot should be eliminated – that will need to be updated to as EMV is adopted in the US and many international markets.  My personal preference is to use an NFC card for food service payments so I can avoid entering a PIN.  Expect US fast food organizations to embrace NFC, beacons, or other options more fully once PINs become more common and a simple swipe of a credit card is replaced by people having to enter a PIN at POS; slowing the queues.

CaptureCustomer Choice – While the system appears entirely intuitive, there’s always a subset of clients that will struggle or reject self service. Some accommodation will need to be made to serve those that don’t wish to use self service. Some customers consider fast service to be good service, while others prefer the human touch. Ultimately the customer is right. Operators will not want to eliminate any potential revenue sources and will want to support any clients that want to eat.

Fraud / Incorrect Reads – The system will require monitoring to avoid shrink. What if two bars of chocolate are set one on top of the other so that the imager sees only 1 item and charges for one? What if the organic coffee is purchased instead of regular? A cup of coffee looks like a circle of black liquid to the imager – it’s impossible to tell without asking the customer or watching them.

Operations – Even though the system works quickly how the flow works in the restaurant environment will require some significant consideration. How many units should be used? Where should they be placed? How many attendants are needed and how are they best deployed? How are exceptions like a system reading a plate incorrectly or an item missing from the image database? How should the queue be arranged for best use of space and simple flow? What if customers have coupons or vouchers or some other discount?  How are the units updated?  Where does the database reside?  Is it simple for local staff to amend and update the product base?

While its certainty not fair to expect a fully developed system from a concept video, it’s important to think through the entire transaction. This concept has much in common with other self service concepts and the issues above are common to all.  All of the issues above are certainly addressable with some thought and an operator devoted to working through the solution with mashgin. I would happily use this sort of technology and look forward to seeing a fully developed iteration in a cafeteria line in the future!

2011.17 | iPad Restaurant Menus

I was out for dinner this weekend at Baton Rouge and had the opportunity to peruse their iPad menu.  This was a surprising treat as restaurants I’ve visited before – Jack Astor’s has iPad menus as an example – have been reticent about giving me a $500 electronic device with 2 children under 10 at the table with me.  Seems like a fair assessment of risk, and I don’t blame them.

Is the iPad menu a gimmick or the menu of tomorrow?  As with every other retail technology, we have to consider benefits to the business owner, the diner and also the ROI.  Here are my thoughts on based purely my single menu experience.

User Experience – The iPads are provided in a protective leather like case, much like a traditional paper based menu in this environment.  They are quite heavy compared to standard paper menus.  While not a showstopper, carrying iPad menus for our table of 8 made for quite an armload for our server.  The app used on the unit appeared to be from an outfit called Menu Live. [I couldn’t find more online – if someone knows more – let me know in the comments.]

The app was as well laid out and simple to use.  It made use of a relatively standard ipad app interface with scrolling and graphics that fit the look and feel of the restaurant brand.  On the positive side, it was possible to see images of all of the dishes.  This was a definite plus in the opinion of the ladies of our party and not generally something you can do with a regular menu.  Unfortunately, they had only one image of a dessert, and it turns out everyone likes to see photos of desserts.  On the negative side, the iPad screens felt strangely small for a menu.  I hadn’t thought about it prior to this visit, but menus are generally a much larger format in my experience.  There was a useful feature in the menu that allowed the diner to add potential options to a favourites list for easier ordering, but I didn’t really use it.

I found it difficult to remember where everything was as I went through the options.  When I look through a menu I remember where an item I want is in the ‘book’ – the page, the section, or what have you.  The endless scrolling format of the menu didn’t provide that same bookmark in my mind, and for some reason I didn’t warm up to the favourites list.   The app did have well placed and easily accessible sections at the bottom of the screen, but using the app felt too different from a regular menu.  I would have preferred a menu that allowed me to swipe from side to side with page animations.  Something that looks more like a regular menu but could also leverage some of  the features above.  It reminds me of how Amazon added page numbers into the kindle for book clubs after complaints that there was no consistent way to share a location in an eBook.  This came about because book clubs are about sharing as part of a community.  Dining out has a similar element to it.  Whenever I eat out, all of my fellow diners ask each other what we are having and then read that item in the menu.  It just feels more natural to go to a page number.

ROI – The staff indicated that the menus are sponsored by a beer company.  Right at the beginning the diner watches a very brief and not unreasonable ad for beer.  You can also see the little logo in the bottom left hand corner of the image.  This makes some good sense. Even though the restaurants using these menus are relatively high end, having 10’s of iPads and associated charging gear in the establishment is a signficant investment.  This is the kind of investment that is best supported by advertising.  If the restaurant isn’t paying, they are certainly staying in the black.  One must wonder, however, how much of this investment would continue to be borne by a third party.  What about menu updates?  What about adding a card with today’s specials? Does this arrangement mean that the menus go away after a certain time?  I’m curious as to whether the menu app is tracking what customers are looking at or not and whether the data is analyzed. That could be an additional value.

Ongoing Support – Adding new technology to a restaurant will always impact the staff.  Whether owned by the restaurant or not, there is a cost to handling these devices, and while it is arguably a sunk cost, there is effort involved.   Staff now have two types of menus to worry about – a potential issue for consistency with pricing or menu items.  Staff have to ensure units are charged.  Staff have to carry the units around and ensure that nobody steals or damages them.  

iPad Lockdown – The app itself is great, but there was no kiosk-like lockdown app on the iPads to lock them down.  Why is that important?  A couple of my friends are keen to explore technology and are open for fun on Saturday night.  That means that the first thing that they did was go out of the menu app and start messing around with anything but the menu app on the iPads.  One changed the default language to Korean.  I’m sure the folks at the restaurant will enjoy re-setting that.  It’s tough to do when all the menu options are in characters you can’t recognize.  My other fellow diner logged into Game Center and was disappointed he couldn’t play Angry Birds.  It was possible to take screen shots with the front and top button and placing those images in the photo app.  It was a fun trick to take a screenshot of the menu and then open the photo app so that my fellow diner could not figure out how to get off the page she was on because she was looking at a screenshot and not the menu app.  I shudder to think what would happen if these were iPad 2’s with cameras.  There was an administrative option in the app that allowed menus to be reset for new customers, so the app was reasonably locked down, but even that should be a little harder to get at.

The app is well done, and it looks great, and absolute full credit goes to those behind this idea.  At present, my assessment is that these menus are a fad.  With respect to customer benefit, it was a fun experience to muck about with them, but they didn’t fundamentally improve our dining experience.  All of us had used iPads before, so even the novelty was slight.  Beyond the photos of the food, there wasn’t much additional value to the diner.  There was little that couldn’t be done with a traditional paper menu.  While photos were nice, it’s primarily a restaurant for steaks and ribs, and the look of the entrees doesn’t change radically.  My fellow diners wanted to know why we couldn’t place our order directly, or page the waiter or pay on the device.  I can’t speak to what the restaurant owner gets from the iPad menus.  Even if there is no hardware or software cost to the owner, if there is no benefit from the perspective of the customer, and the staff encounter additional effort, I don’t see these units lasting too long.

[Update May 2: Looks like someone is listening.  E la Carte has an interactive tablet that lets diners order and pay as well as read the menu. ]

2010.38 | New Restaurant Technology

I just read a fascinating Fast Company article on how McDonald’s is remaking itself.  The article contains a great deal of discussion on decoration, layout and customer experience.   There are also passing references to experimentation with commonly tested but selectively implemented solutions such as queue busting, new drive thru layouts and self ordering kiosks.

Other restaurants are trying some slightly less traditional solutions:

Electronic Sommelier – Atlanta’s Bone’s restaurant are using iPads to replace their extensive winelist covering more than 1,300 wines.  Incentient provides these as well as digital menu solutions.

Mobile Order Entry Lecere is piloting a point of sale system for casual dining establishments based on iPhone and iPad platforms.

Social Media Menu Building – New restaurant 4Food, recently opened in NYC, is wall to wall technology.  Customers can order food online for pickup or delivery, order via an iPad in the restaurant, and see recent tweets by and about the restaurant on a giant video screen.  The digital menu boards change based on the availability of ingredients.  Customers can even design their own creations, name them, and collect royalties when their friends order them by name.

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