For any restaurant, be it large or small, the process of making an expensive investment in an unproven new technology can turn a mild-mannered restaurateur into a stressful, headache-ridden worrywart. The agonizing questions typically begin before the first check is even written: How long until I see a return on investment? Are the vendor’s advertised ROI claims justifiable? Will my employees actually use it? What if the company goes out of business or doesn’t back the product?
Research Every Potential Purchase
The first thing that will ease the mind of any technology-hungry check writer is knowledge. If you’re absolutely convinced that the product or service you are investing in will work for you, and is the best of its kind that you can afford, any secondguessing of your decision will become less likely. Product research, although made quicker by a high-bandwidth Internet and improved search engines, is still, well, research. It still often feels like we’re back in high school, writing a term paper for that cranky science teacher who never seemed to have a life. But in this case, an A+ on this research paper could mean decreased costs, improved cuisine, and happier employees, and a C- could result in wasted time, wasted money, and even unhappy customers.
So before we shine some light on some new technology that New York City restaurants are using, and without being overly cliché and redundant, it’s important to say a few words about the importance of researching the companies behind the new products and technologies we’re buying. One unsurprising nugget of information we uncovered was that most restaurant purchases are still made as a result of the oldest communication tool - word of mouth. This type of purchase does not mean that the product or service is the best or most economical that is available; only that a friend or associate vouches for its usefulness and/or its effectiveness. So if your friend or associate did not research their buying decision thoroughly, you’ll likely be repeating their mistake. Running a quick search in Google using the manufacturer’s company name as the subject will likely bring up many pages of information, resulting in hours of revelation and reading enjoyment. When researching software firms, the quality of the web site is an important consideration in determining the company’s professionalism, whereas many very well-run equipment manufacturers still have horrendous web presences, and finding decent information on these sites can be a challenge. Another thing you’re looking for from these searches are independently written reviews, and if you’re lucky you might find a few blogger sites with personal reviews written by people who have actually used the product you are researching. Although the information one gleams from some blog-oriented web sites amount to no more than glorified word-of-mouth, some sites, such as egullet.org and thefoodsection.com, are populated with enough chefs and wise foodies to get your research paper the A+ it deserves.
Blend and Heat
If NASA ever built a blender, it would surely look like the Thermomix. Sleek and angular and well made, I was surprised to find out that this product is not marketed very heavily toward commercial chefs, but to women in the European home market, where it is currently a huge hit. The U.S. rep, Joe Morales, said that Thermomix “Tupperwaretype parties” are very popular in Europe, where they are selling nearly half a million units a year. Here in the U.S., it’s a fraction of that. But the the German-made Thermomix, manufactured by a company called Vorwerk, is fast becoming a popular item in New York City restaurant kitchens, because of its ability to heat items within a very narrow range of temperatures, while it blends items in a 2 liter stainless steel bowl. Being a mixture of a blender, microwave and food processor, it can handle a large list of preparations including soups, coulis, purées, and sauces, and plays an important role in molecular gastronomy R&D due to its speed and versatility. www.thermomix.com.
The Techne Immersion Circulator is a high-tech instrument generally engineered for medical laboratories, and its boat-motor profile makes it look out of place in a typical kitchen. But many chefs saw the potential in the circulator’s ability to heat and pump water, and keep it at an exact constant temperature – within 1 degree Celsius in some models. Aquavit’s Executive Chef Nils Noren explains that when he cooks duck, he sets the temperature at 66C, and the duck never cooks more on the outside than it does in the middle. “The longer you cook it, the more tender it gets. And you end up with a perfectly cooked duck,” Mr. Noren says. But he also warns that the complexity of the equipment must be learned thoroughly before it is used in production. “It’s very important to know how to use this technology. You can give chefs this technology, but if you don’t know how to use it to your advantage, they can ruin the food instead.” www.techneusa.com.
Another example of European technology finding its way into New York City’s kitchens, Cru’s chef and co-owner Shea Gallante calls this item “one of the premiere inventions of the past 10 to 15 years.” These are strong words coming from a New York Times three-star chef and Food & Wine’s “Best new Chef of 2005”. While preparing freshly-made frozen desserts like ice cream and sorbet is its claim to fame, Mr. Gallante also uses it to create special sauces, flavored butters, and purees. The key is the ability to store multiple natural fruit-laden liquids and flavored concoctions by deep-freezing them and storing them in one-liter steel beakers. When you’re ready to serve, you pull the container from the freezer and place the product in the machine, which then shears the frozen substance so finely you end up with a supersmooth product, at a temperature of about –12C. This process is called “pacotizing”. The machine lets you set the amount of product to pacotize so that the whole container does not have to be used, allowing it to be restored for future use. While the containers are not cheap (4 containers cost about $120), the saved labor results in a reasonable ROI of about one to six months, in addition to the obvious culinary benefits. www.pacojet.com
My first clue that an interesting piece of Swiss equipment called a “Hold-o-Mat” was not readily available in this country occurred when I entered that product name into a Google search. What resulted was a list of hundreds of web pages, all in different languages, but none of them English. My suspicions were confirmed when Jsabelle Wälti, the marketing contact for Holdo-Mat in Grubenstrasse Switzerland, confirmed that they are not yet able to distribute their product to the U.S. Although the marketing material for this oven tends to lean toward its use as a holding oven, Shea Gallante, proud owner of one of the few around town, uses it for slow cooking some of his dishes to perfection. “It’s the same concept as Sous Vide, except its using dry heat, and the temperature does not fluctuate.” If you can find a way to circumvent strict customs laws and don’t mind the $3000 price tag, this oven, which looks like a glorified toaster oven, would be a welcome addition to any chef’s kitchen.
Business Intelligence systems have been around for a long time, but their start-up cost has traditionally prevented all but the largest restaurant groups and chains from integrating this type of valuable tool into their back office systems, until now. Promising improved server productivity, better financial analytics, and the ability to quickly and easily identify cost-saving opportunities, these systems offer a surprisingly fast ROI for large single restaurants, and for small and large restaurant groups. One high-flying player in this arena, Avero's Slingshot, is a web-based ASP business intelligence software solution that provides restaurateurs instant access to essential information in order to help them make instant, proactive business decisions based on current core metrics. It consolidates data from a variety of existing point-of-sale (POS) systems, including Micros, Infogenesis, Aloha, and others, and repackages this transactional data into insightful business intelligence to help owners and operators to enhance revenue, track costs, manage staff performance, and monitor important sales trends. Every night, an encrypted upload takes place from the each restaurant's internal systems to Avero's central database, where it then becomes available for 24/7 reporting and analysis. "Most restaurants go out of business because they are losing money," says Jonathan Morse, Avero's Sales and Marketing Director. "Using revenue management, you can figure out how to price particular items on your menu in order to stop losing money." The ability of performing multiple "what if" scenarios is a particularly valuable feature. With a few clicks, a manager can preview the effects that certain changes might have on the entire organization if pricing changes were made, such as what effect it would have on overall profit margins if you raised the price of each menu item one dollar, or your most popular item fifty cents, and so forth. Other vendors in the restaurant business intelligence area include Eatec (www.eatec.com) and Mirus (www.mirus.com)., and Ctuit (www.ctuit.com) These systems aren't appropriate for every restaurant, however. If your restaurant's revenues are under $1M a year, it is very possible that the cost of these systems will not return ROI fast enough, or at all. But as these systems get better and, eventually, cheaper to install, smaller restaurants will no doubt be able to find a cost-effective BI system that will give them the same benefits that today's large restaurant groups enjoy.
Opentable.com is the undisputed leader in online reservation systems, for three reasons. First, they have been around since 1999, and their mature software works well. Second, they have made some very smart moves to create an affiliate-based system, borrowing from Amazon’s model of sharing revenue with any online entity who wants to link to them. Largescale affiliate partnerships agreements with AOL, Timeout New York, Gayot, and CitySearch, among others, gives it a huge advantage over smaller start-ups. And the third reason is that there really isn’t a strong alternative on the market for restaurateurs. While many Web-based ASP’s are sprouting up, most of these companies do not offer the ability to link up to POS back-end systems and front of the house reservation systems like OpenTable does. And when the Internet bubble burst in 2000, it brought down OpenTable’s main competitor, Foodline.com, which is still struggling to make a comeback – a visit to their web site showed a secure certificate that expired in 2002, and most of their restaurant data seems to be a blast from the past as well. So it’s not surprising that Opentable, which just celebrated it 10-millionth seated diner, is now in about 400 New York City area restaurants. Expect to pay approximately $1300 in start up fees and $199 a month in on-going maintenance. If your restaurant does not want to install the integration module that connects OpenTable to your current reservation system, you can skip the set-up fee, and just pay the monthly fee, which adds your restaurant to their growing list of affiliate web sites, as well as their own portal site. A relatively new entry into the reservation solutions arena, RestaurantDiary.com, is a Scotland-based ASP company that offers web-based tools similar to Opentable. Many of their features rival Opentable’s, and their startup and monthly fees are slightly lower. However, their product tends to reply on the restaurant’s own web site for reservations, and in most cases is added to the restaurant’s existing web site as a link. They do not have a portal to attract new customers, nor have their signed on any major U.S. affiliate web sites as of yet. The pricing in this space certainly reflects the lack of viable, reliable competition. But for the patient restaurateur, it is just a matter of time before other software companies jump into this potentially lucrative market, resulting in lower startup prices (which will also benefit from falling hardware prices) and reduced monthly fees.