Imagine walking into a restaurant at the height of tourist season, reading about its menu and ordering without having to wait for a server. Food is delivered in a timely manner, while wait staff ensure the customer is having a pleasant dining experience.
That's the idea behind a new software company launched by a local restaurant owner. The concept isn't to replace serving staff — rather, it’s to help them handle a larger load more efficiently.
"What we find is that in a typical restaurant, a bartender or staff spends a lot of their time taking orders," said restaurant owner Chris Ladoulis. "If a server has 10 tables in a section, they can normally be with only one of them at a time. … This is a way to provide better guest service, not to replace personal service."
Ladoulis — who owns Django's Restaurant and Wine Bar in Crested Butte — has formed the software company Thrst (pronounced "thirst") with partners from Texas in an effort to develop programming which will aid his industry. Ladoulis comes from a technology background and has tinkered with cloud-based programming for years.
He launched the company to help solve problems inherent to the restaurant business — such as a lack of staff or a staff who are overwhelmed and overworked. Ladoulis is currently testing his full-blown program in two settings — 9380 Prime in Mt. Crested Butte, and a Dallas restaurant.
Benefits for restaurants, patrons alike
Ideally, the software will work like this: customers enter a restaurant and are seated at a table. Instead of waiting for the server, they can utilize their own phones to access the restaurant's menu containing pictures and descriptions of the offerings. Orders then can be placed through the software, which also serves as a point-of-sale system, collecting payment. The server who delivers the food chats with the customer about local attractions or answers questions about the restaurant as a sort of concierge or "ambassador," Ladoulis said.
"We're changing the way that front of the house service can be provided (by) removing the menial task of placing an order," he said. "Instead of the server spending significant amounts of time on repetitive tasks, they can spend that time with their guests."
Ladoulis wants the software to provide log-in capabilities for regular clients to view a custom menu with preloaded preferences based on order history, and discounts for frequency of use.
Benefits to restaurants are envisioned to include less investment in hardware, being able to handle greater volume and maintaining a consistent number of employees — rather than beefing up staff for a month or two, only to lay them off when the busy season is finished.
"You might have a base staff of 12 people but you can handle the load of double or triple that if you let customers participate in the process," Ladoulis explained.
Ivan Giani, food and beverage manager at 9380 Prime, agreed. Although he said the system is not without technical glitches, it has streamlined the service side of his restaurant. On a busy afternoon, he said, three servers can handle all the tables in the restaurant.
His biggest challenge is educating the customer.
“People have the preconceived idea that they have to have a server to get good service,” said Giani. “Now if you order your own food they can serve you and take care of the service you need.”
Some servers at 9380 Prime admitted there have been some technical difficulties to operating the system. Giani said each one has been addressed as it’s come up.
“There are some challenges with it, but I think the positives outweigh the negatives,” he said. “We work closely with (Ladoulis) and call the technical team if needed.”
Improving operating margins
Ladoulis is well aware that such technology could provoke a backlash from those who see it as a threat to personal service and staffing.
"People are afraid of automation," Ladoulis said. "With the increase in minimum wage, I think there's a lot of concern about how restaurants are going to manage their businesses. … The role of the front of the house people will have to evolve to be more hands-on and interactive sales-oriented."
Ladoulis has restaurants in Washington D.C., New York City, Dallas and Houston sampling his program, along with clients throughout Colorado and Alaska. They are offering him feedback on enhancements and changes.
In addition to 9380, Ladoulis said The Secret Stash utilizes his company's software for online pizza orders. And in his own restaurant, meals prepared for delivery can be ordered through the software. He hopes to utilize the program to a greater degree in his restaurant this coming summer.
"We've got to find ways that restaurants can improve operating margins," he said. "The guest experience is so much better when they don't have to wait for that one person who runs around like a chicken with their head cut off, and the best you can hope for is raising your arm and saying, 'Hey, by the way, can I get another beer?'"
(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)