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leadFood, Phones, & Changes for Fast Casual Dining

Our look at how technology is transforming the food and dining industry begins with the local franchise owner of the Panera Bread Café chain. As a leader in the fast-casual dining category, Panera pioneered healthy and fresh food menu choices delivered with speedy and efficient service. Howley Bread Group (HBG) located in Lincoln, operates 29 Panera Bread cafes located in Rhode Island, Connecticut and parts of Massachusetts. Senior VP of Operations Bahjat Shariff says the tech upgrades found throughout their restaurants occurred first in the kitchen. “There’s been a huge amount of work to increase our kitchen capabilities by adding equipment and kitchen technology. There’s no doubt we are handling a greater volume of orders because there are so many new platforms available to the customer.” Beyond the kitchen, customers are now becoming familiar with the changes that have occurred in the dining room itself and at the pay counter areas to meet changing modes of ordering and payment. “Once the kitchen was set, we introduced the Rapid Pick-Up App, and kiosks ordering via IPAD is now available in many of our cafes,” Bahjat explains. “Customers want quicker ordering, mobile ordering specifically, so adding Rapid Pick-Up app and kiosks ordering has changed our business.”

Cloud-based accounting technology platforms are changing how companies across industries manage their financial tracking systems, but Bahjat says those types of platforms are coming gradually for the local Panera businesses. “We are not quite there yet but we have been introducing lots of Dashboard type tools for our managers to track their business transactions as well as e-commerce ordering, whether that means through on-line catering ordering, the Rapid Pick-up App, kiosks ordering and loyalty cards,” says Bahjat. “Our cafes are now equipped to be able to view the entire financial statements on site,” which he says speeds up the process of tracking transaction volume.

Technology has a major impact on employees says Bahjat, and frequent upgrades mean it’s an ongoing challenge to have workers fully up to speed. “Employee training is an evolutionary process,” is how he describes the ongoing training needed for the 1,300 workers in the southeastern New England Panera cafes. But beyond the employee, he finds tech upgrades also dictate training for the customer. “We are very focused on e-commerce, walking a guest through these new devices and apps. We have added a staff person during peak times to help guests with all the new technology,” explains Bahjat.

Lastly, when the man who oversees 29 Panera bread cafes is ready for a lunch break, what does he want? “I usually order a You Pick Two: Southwest Chili Lime Ranch Salad with Chicken, and the Chipotle Chicken Avocado melt. Looking forward to having this today!” he told me on the day of our interview. Sometimes the Sr. VP is just a guest looking forward to his favorite order like everyone else.

jeffRISCPA member and Technology Committee Chair Jeff Barba brings extensive technology expertise to the accounting services he brings to his clients at Warwick-based BarbaCFO (www.barbacfo.com ) To enhance our look at how technology is transforming the food/restaurant industry, we thought it would be helpful to explore how our chief RISCPA “techie CPA” views the impact of changing technologies on businesses. 

“We provide small businesses with outsourced, fractional CFO services anywhere between one day per month to two days per week, and we assist small and mid-size companies with special technology-oriented projects,” says Jeff, who, along with a staff of five, provides services to about seventy clients on an ongoing basis.

Technology has brought major changes in the purchase transaction in this sector and Jeff says the decreasing use of cash, and the increasing use of on-line, card, and mobile pay purchasing can be a double-edged sword as it presents both advantages, but also new expenses for businesses. “In the old days when there were employees handling so much cash in these types of businesses, tracking transactions between customers and employees was a major responsibility for business owners to guard against losing profits,” Jeff notes. “If revenues are generated from many small transactions, it may reduce the overall cost of doing business in that the costs of handling, accounting for, and safeguarding cash have decreased. Meanwhile, if a company’s revenues are generated from a wide use of credit cards tied to more expensive transactions, then the cost of credit card fees can be much more costly than other forms of payment.”

Ironically Jeff does not generally utilize web based accounting platforms for his business as he still prefers traditional software programs. “I have not found any of the web based accounting applications such as Quickbooks Online or Xero to have the functionality or ease of use that matches windows based applications such as Quickbooks Desktop,” Jeff says. “If clients want to take advantage of the mobile workplace, I strongly suggest Quickbooks Desktop hosted on a cloud server.”

Jeff echoes Bahjat regarding employee training, saying the reality today is to budget for new costs around worker training and retraining as new software, payment systems and countless other technology upgrades are implemented. “I see training and inefficiencies associated with new technologies as the biggest costs. When you buy new software, it’s easy to be so focused on the benefits of the new software, that when you are going through the actual conversion and learning curve it doesn’t seem so great,” but, he promises, “you will eventually reap the benefits.”

Lastly, regarding the cyber security challenge, “the security piece is frustrating to me,” Jeff admits. “Taking proper precautions gets more and more costly, but it’s becoming one of those necessary expenses to operate a business as you must offer clients adequate security.” He adds that “you must constantly update and upgrade to really stay secure because unfortunately, there’s always a new threat on the horizon.”

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