Road to Recovery: What's Working--Restaurants Use Technology To Lure the Hungry Heart

Ordering lunch online is nothing new -- from pizza to salads to subs -- scores of eateries have offered web-based menus for years. But now some restaurants are finding the way to a hungry customer's heart is through a highly interactive website, so they can customize their order, and enjoy it in a matter of minutes, without actually having to talk to a single person.

One chain making the most of recent technological advances is Specialty's Cafe & Bakery, based in San Francisco. With 32 cafes located in mostly downtown or financial districts, the owners were looking for ways to help their busy customers get the most enjoyment out of their lunchtime experience.

Instead of a hot new chef, they teamed up with software programmers and developed what many in the industry consider to be the gold standard of ordering cafe food online.

In Specialty's cyber-kitchen, account holders can create their wildest combos of sandwiches and salads, add or delete items according to calories and fat content, save their favorites, and either pick it up or have it delivered.

Specialty's is integrated with Google maps. Priority pickups are ready in 15 minutes, bagged, tagged, and ready to grab by the front door. No waiting in line to order or to pay, and no waiting for the waiter to bring a salad that might not be what you'd asked for, or expected.

For founder and CEO Craig Saxton, the proprietary software is a conduit to a more traditional dining experience.

"What's the essence of food? It's contextual," he says. "You don't just want to shove it in your mouth. You want to enjoy it with people. We're trying to eliminate those barriers -- the wait-in- line barriers, the 'oh, you didn't get my order right' barrier because you didn't hear me right. If we can eliminate the negative things, we think it enhances your quality of life."

Indeed, many customers now crave this new way to lunch. "I can just go online, check into my account, place an order, hit the ASAP button and by the time I walk over here, it's ready to go," says Christine Lima, one of Specialty's 250,000 registered users, and a frequent online patron.

The company's accountants are eating it up, too. While hundreds of restaurants have closed in recent years, Specialty's, which is expected to do $60 million in business this year, has seen a virtual boom.

"Fifty percent of our revenue is online," says Saxton. "We have stores that do as much as 80% of their revenue online. The technology has increased order accuracy, and is just a great enabler, so people can access our food much more easily. It's helped our brand grow faster than it would otherwise. You put those two together, and that's why our numbers have been phenomenal."

The robust database also allows the company to do limited outreach. An example of this is e-mailing vegetarian customers, for instance, about new vegan dishes.

Consistently good food will always be a customer's No. 1 priority. But restaurant consultants say 'next generation' online ordering can help restaurants anticipate -- and profit from -- trends in customer preferences. "This is a way they can easily build revenue and cut down on waste, because everything is ordered in advance. They'll know exactly what people are going to want," says Joan Simon, owner of Full Plate Restaurant Consulting.

And what people want is more time to enjoy their meal -- either at their desk, or with friends who've also ordered ahead, thanks to innovative software -- serving up convenience.