RESTAURANTS Remote order system tested

At the drive-through, you may be ordering long-distance.
DALLAS -- When customers pull into the drive-through lane at a St. Louis Hardee's restaurant, they may assume they are speaking with a young, energetic order taker a few feet away.
The person confirming the order of a Monster Thickburger and Dr Pepper may, indeed, be energetic and young. But the customer's notion of the employee's whereabouts would be off -- by about 1,800 miles.
As part of a test begun in December, Hardee's is using high-speed communications equipment and employees in Anaheim, Calif., to instantly process drive-through orders two time zones away.
Remote order-taking at drive-throughs -- the latest trend in restaurant technology -- is part of a broader effort by the industry to migrate some communication duties from in-store workers to off-site proxies. With the new division of labor, restaurateurs hope to process orders or customer requests more quickly and accurately, and ultimately boost sales.
"This is a move to give better service," said Robert Grimes, whose Maryland-based consulting company, Accuvia, will host its annual food-service technology show in Grapevine, Texas, later this year. "It's a way to streamline the process and make it work better."
By using trained specialists, restaurateurs say they can improve service in regions of the country, including Texas and California, where language differences and heavy accents can make communication more challenging.
Today, dulcet-toned call center "agents" are taking everything from pizza orders to birthday party reservations. And the industry continues to test new uses.
Dallas-based Pizza Hut Inc. and the Irving, Texas-based owner of Chuck E. Cheese's have begun routing phone calls normally handled in the restaurant to call centers. For Pizza Hut, it's still a limited test. For Chuck E. Cheese's, it's the way party reservations are handled nationwide.
The industry has been buzzing about remote order taking in drive-through lanes since word spread last year about a McDonald's franchisee that is taking orders that way.
Colorado franchisee Steve Bigari began building a large call center after his smaller one in Colorado Springs successfully processed drive-through orders for more than 15 McDonald's outlets, said Craig Tengler, a Maryland-based software executive who helped launch Bigari's first center in June 2003.
The center uses voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP technology, a T1 phone line and instant photographs to process the orders.
A car pulling up to the menu board trips a magnetic loop that alerts the call center. There, the agent takes and confirms the order and shoots it instantly to the restaurant. In-store employees focus on taking the cash and delivering the food.
Using photos of diners allows stores to install multiple drive-through lanes, which can boost car counts, Tengler said.
The Hardee's test works in much the same way, but with a DSL line and no photos, said Jeff Chasney, chief information officer for Hardee's owner CKE Restaurants Inc. of Carpinteria, Calif., which also owns the Carl's Jr. chain.
By March, he said, CKE also hopes to test a system in which one store handles drive-through orders for another.
Call centers for both McDonald's and Hardee's have backup communication lines to send customers directly to the appropriate restaurant if there are delays on the call-center line.
Pizza Hut is still monitoring its 2-year-old test of centralized ordering in 76 company-owned stores in Columbus, Ohio, and Kansas City, Mo., a spokeswoman said. Consumers call one number in each city, and the orders are electronically routed to the closest corporate store.
Using call centers to handle customer queries dates back more than 15 years, said Grimes, the Accuvia consultant. But in most cases, consumers were calling a toll-free number and had no illusion that they were speaking to someone nearby.
None the wiser
With the latest initiatives -- most of which have appeared within the past two years -- the consumer is none the wiser.
As helium-filled Chuck E. Cheese's balloons bobbed gently to-and-fro, a roomful of agents recently helped callers from Mississippi to Nebraska schedule group outings at their neighborhood Chuck E. Cheese's.
Consumers dial a number for their local store, but a phone tree routes all party and fund-raising inquiries to the call center. The 5,000-square-foot center sits inside the Airport Freeway headquarters of the chain's parent, CEC Entertainment Inc.
CEC opened its call center six years ago, said Jon Rice, vice president of marketing.
In September, the company launched a fund-raising program for elementary schools, expanding the duties of the call center, which can employ up to 120 agents during peak times.
Over time, agents become proficient at sounding like part of the hometown crowd.
"We try not to tell them that we're not there," said Michele Drake of Grand Prairie, Texas, who has worked in the CEC call center for three years. "Most of their questions I can help them with."
The agents' computer screens often offer information on landmarks and retailers near the chain's roughly 500 stores -- so agents can even answer questions about the nearest grocer.
From a business standpoint, having off-site workers handle communication-intensive tasks frees up store personnel to handle in-store matters, said CEC's Rice. "Have you ever tried to call a restaurant during lunch or dinner?" he asked. "We want to keep our staff members focused on the guests at the restaurant and not answering the phones."
Using the call center, he said, "makes for better customer service."
Faster order time
Tengler asserts that call centers using his software can shave 13 seconds from the average transaction time, because the order is taken the instant the car arrives, with no delays, and the agents tend to be faster and make fewer mistakes.
That's a significant drop, since only 6.8 seconds separated the speediest chain -- Wendy's -- from No. 2 Checker's in the 2004 "best drive-through in America" study in trade magazine QSR.
The incentive for Hardee's is improved communication and accuracy, Chasney said. He said the company plans to focus on "challenge stores" where in-store personnel may face language issues.
That same rationale makes widespread overseas outsourcing unlikely, because cost and accent differences would defeat the purpose, restaurateurs said.
Chasney is skeptical of some of the benefit claims he's heard and expects to see a few glitches as more chains test the waters.
"This is very nascent and we're all learning as we go," Chasney said. "We'll know a lot more in about a year."

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