No one in the technology world would ever confuse the annual National Restaurant Association Show with something like the Consumer Electronics Show, but high tech has become an increasingly bigger part of the dining industry expo.

Hundreds of companies are displaying their technology wares at the annual NRA show, which opened its four-day run today in Chicago.

Whether the new tech is in the form of cost-saving equipment, computer-based ordering systems, or intelligence enhancements, the progress has helped the restaurant industry boost productivity and augment customer service.

"It's been hugely important in terms of providing labor savings for the industry, as well as an entirely new way of marketing and connecting the restaurant with customers," says David Matthews, the NRA’s chief information officer.

Collecting information, for instance, has become paramount.

"In one sense, it allows you to personalize customers," he says. "As systems become more advanced, restaurants are able to reach out to them with offers and suggestions."

Some of the technology that was cutting edge just a few years ago has become commonplace. Computer-driven point-of-sales systems are the norm. Now the issue is how these systems and networks can interface with other applications.

"These days, it's all about the network," says Robert Grimes, president and chief executive of Constrata, a Potomac, Maryland, tech consulting firm.

A tour of the show's Technology Pavilion finds all kinds of new gadgets, gizmos, and software. In addition, many new companies are at the NRA Show, because tablet and mobile tech advances has lowered the cost of entering the restaurant space.

One big advantage of developing applications that work with smartphones is that the customers are actually providing one of the most important parts of the technology: the phones. So operators just need to find the right apps.

Various vendors are selling software that link to POS systems, allowing consumers to order and pay from their phones. It's part of a growing wave.

"Fifty percent of our business takes place outside the restaurant and 15 percent of that is mobile or online," says Jeff Drake, cofounder, president, and chief operating officer of Go Roma, a Northbrook, Illinois–based fast-casual chain. That will only increase.

One company, ChowNow, developed its online ordering platform for mobile and social networks that integrates to a restaurant's network via iPhone, iPad, or Facebook, as well as through the eatery's website. Android apps are on the way.

"Mobile's going to be the bread and butter in the future," says Jason Iseman, director of marketing for the Santa Monica, California, company.

Some mobile apps have more of a marketing slant. Front Flip, of Kansas City, developed an mobile application to help restaurants establish repeat business and reward frequent customers who use their phones to scan codes at participating stores.

The service is mutually beneficial, says founder and CEO Sean Beckner. The app reads a QR code and sends the guest a virtual scratch card with a chance to win a prize. The restaurant gets valuable customer data and the opportunity to interact with its customers.

Various companies are displaying tablet-based tabletop-ordering systems, many of which include software that is leased, rather than sold.

E la Carte, formed by former Massachusetts Institute of Technology students, is showing off its Presto tablet that includes a display of menu choices and a credit-card reader.

These devices not only allow customers to order their meals and pay for them, but they include games to engage customers while they're waiting for their food.

Also inside the restaurant, touch screens can provide enhanced communication.

QA Graphics, of Ankeny, Iowa, is showcasing an interactive nutritional display created for a McDonald's franchise in Richardson, Texas. The touch screen application is a trailblazing method to meet impending menu-labeling laws.

"You can see the specifics of what you order, adding and subtracting any ingredients," says president Dan McCarty. "It's not all that expensive to do. [Operators] have the information. We've just put it interactive form that easy to upgrade."

All this new technology also means additional activity on restaurants' networks. Rather than having monitoring services for each application, Heartland Payment Systems launched SmartLink for Restaurants, a managed network service.

"Most people got into the restaurant business for reasons other than managing their IT systems," says Anthony T. Ventre, senior marketing strategist for the Princeton, New Jersey–based company. "This allows them to spend more time on the [restaurant's] floor."

SmartLink already is in use at more than 12,000 businesses, including convenience stores and gas stations, so we know it works."

By Barney Wolf

Industry News, Technology