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DineTime plans to turn the tables

By Mark Green

Restaurant technology provider QSR Automations of Louisville has launched a new guest management tool, DineTime, that it believes could surpass the success of its ConnectSmart solution, which is installed in 70,000 restaurant sites around the world.

A cloud-based tablet application for eatery operators, DineTime also is a smartphone app for consumers. It lets diners scan restaurants and current table wait times in their geographic area, then join the waiting list at the one they choose. DineTime notifies customers by text or email of their initial wait time, texts them when they’re being seated and allows two-way messaging in the meantime.

The DineTime restaurant guest management and customer app by QSR Automations is in testing at dozens of locations around Louisville, such as Bearno’s By The River shown here. In the photo are, from left, Lee Leet, president and CEO of QSR; Marissa Arms, then a DineTime marketing coordinator; Steve Higdon, QSR vice president for marketing; and Hilary Vonderheide, QSR marketing for the DineTime app.
The DineTime restaurant guest management and customer app by QSR Automations is in testing at dozens of locations around Louisville, such as Bearno’s By The River shown here. In the photo are, from left, Lee Leet, president and CEO of QSR; Marissa Arms, then a DineTime marketing coordinator; Steve Higdon, QSR vice president for marketing; and Hilary Vonderheide, QSR marketing for the DineTime app.

As in many business sectors, mobile technology is transforming restaurant operations, said Lee Leet, president and CEO of QSR, which is the biggest tech services provider to the industry in the world.

The truly robust functions of DineTime are for restaurant operators. A hostess can assess current use of all tables – by size, by section, by how fast they are turning – and seat parties with a drag-and-drop swipe from the wait list. Managers or owners can monitor everything from near or far as long as they have Internet access to the cloud-based data.

And that is just scraping the surface. Among the features DineTime is being designed to provide are wait time tracking; reservations; guest notes; multiple device syncing; graphical floor plans; staff and station assignments; guest books and automatic guest lookup; history tracking; daily, weekly, monthly and yearly dashboards and reports; and exporting of guest data.

It went into testing in the spring at an initial dozen Louisville restaurants, with plans for a national rollout later this year.

An indication of just how big the restaurant technology sector can be came in mid-June when Priceline announced it was acquiring Open Table, an online reservation and restaurant management tool that is in wide usage, for $2.6 billion.

DineTime expects to provide restaurateurs with better analytics that allow them to improve short- and long-term operation efficiency while also building stronger relationships with customers, Leet said. The guest notes feature can allow any host or server to know a returning diner’s preferences and special needs: where they prefer to sit, a favorite drink, what they are allergic to.

It will allow comparisons among multiple locations and eventually against the baseline statistics of all DineTime users. Using the analytics it generates, managers facing a busy day or evening can match up the table-turn efficiencies of individual servers with appropriate section and table sizes.

The initial wait time to be seated is what the metric diners themselves care most about, but during busy times, it is a result of all the other operations taking place in a restaurant, Leet said. That includes how long after seating an order is taken, when that order hits the kitchen, preparation and plating time, serving the food, eating, drink service, check printing and then payment.

A display screen for the DineTime Guest Management application depicting a current waiting list and table use.
A display screen for the DineTime Guest Management application depicting a current waiting list and table use.

“A restaurant ebbs and flows with the kitchen,” said Leet, a computer code writing engineer who founded QSR Automation on Jan. 1, 1996, while still in his mid-20s. It grew out of an assignment he was given by KFC to come up with software to help coordinate operations at co-branded stores with Taco Bell.

A University of Louisville Speed School of Engineering grad, Leet had served in the Air Force and emerged with a strong desire to have his own plane. Quickly deciding he would need his own business to afford that, Leet said he was on the lookout for any task that could become the basis for a business.

Coordinating slow-cooking KFC chicken and quickly prepared Taco Bell orders with a kitchen display system that worked faster than what they had “presented an opportunity,” he determined.

“I thought this was something I could form a company with,” Leet said. He offered to write the coordination coding work for free on the condition that if it worked, Tricon Global Restaurants, the parent company of KFC and Taco Bell – and predecessor of what today is Yum! Brands Inc. – would buy it. Then 25 years old and living in a cheap apartment, Leet covered his own expenses for nearly six months and came up with a preliminary product “in about a year.”

Then he spent several months trying to get it to work on an NCR platform that Leet finally determined had a number of bugs. He wrote a report on the flaws and proposed fixing them, but it was not well received by the third-party vendor he was working with who was also an NCR equipment provider.

“He told me I was an idiot and a moron and I didn’t know what I was talking about,” Leet recalled. “He said my software was what was wrong.”

Fortunately, Leet had established a strong relationship with a KFC vice president who trusted him so much that he asked Leet to create the hardware, too, for the new product and came up with funding for a prototype. He designed, tested and built systems for about two dozen co-branded Taco Bell/KFC restaurants in the Houston area.

Today QSR Automations – QSR stands for quick-serve restaurant – has about 100 employees,” said Steve Higdon, its vice president of marketing. Its ConnectSmart product is the market leader in kitchen display systems for chain restaurants such as Yum! Brands locations, Darden Restaurants such as Olive Garden; Cracker Barrel; Cheesecake Factory; and others. Its systems are used to seat more than 1 million restaurant customers daily, Higdon said.

With DineTime, it will be taking on Open Table, which already is in the restaurant and guest management space with some 35,000 installations. QSR introduced DineTime during Taste of Louisville in February when 200 media members were in town in connection with a restaurant industry trade show.

DineTime Host for restaurants is a rebranded and much enhanced version of ConnectSmart Hostess. A goal of the DineTime app for customers is for it to grow into a restaurant guide. Users can sort restaurants by cuisine, price, rating and a radius of their choosing from their current location. The app links with a smartphone’s GPS to take diners to the restaurant they choose.

A display screen for the DineTime Customer application depicting the cuisine, wait time, ratings, and distance away from the user of available restaurants.
A display screen for the DineTime Customer application depicting the cuisine, wait time, ratings, and distance away from the user of available restaurants.

Mobile and cloud technology make DineTime cheaper than Open Table, Higdon said.

“It allows us to reach 80 percent of the (restaurant) market that could never afford the other version,” he said. Costs top out at $99 a month. Users can download the product interface onto a tablet, input their locations’ room and table geographies, their staffing data, and begin operating.

“I do like it. It’s been a great replacement for the grease pencil marking on a piece of glass method,” said Adam Lee, manager of Austin’s and KT’s restaurants in Louisville. “It makes it simple, and it’s lots more professional.”

Installation was “incredibly easy,” and fears that his older professionals with 20 years and more of restaurant experience would have difficulty adapting proved unfounded, Lee said.

Customers are offering positive feedback, and reservation system coordination has been smooth so far.

“The biggest thing for me,” Lee said, “is that it replaced the pager system” and the large plastic puck-like devices that lit up and vibrated to notify customers their table was ready.

Also important is DineTime’s cost.

“We looked at Open Table but it was cost prohibitive,” he said.

Lee likes the analytics DineTime is providing on a daily basis, too, he said. It is developing a database of average table-turn times for lunch and dinner, which are beginning to allow assessment of the efficiency of individual servers.

DineTime is expected to go into national release sometime in the third quarter of this year. QSR sees a potential market of as many as 300,000 restaurants across the United States. England will be its next market.

Mark Green is editorial director of The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected]