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Short-Staffed Restaurants Prop Up Table Service With Technology

Casual dining chains rely on technology to make the seated dining experience more automated for diners and more efficient for busy staff – and in some cases to make up for a lack of waiters.

Cracker Barrel’s food customers can pay for their meals through an app on their phones and tablets at any of the company’s 660+ Southern restaurants.

“The more we can shift the volume to things like that, the less work in the stores is,” said Sandra B. Cochran, President and CEO of Cracker Barrel. At Cracker Barrel, which has identified staffing levels as “critical” at 10% of its restaurants, staffing has become a challenge, Cochran said.

The technology investments in casual dining chains are intended in part to ease pressure on waiters who return to work after the pandemic restrictions are lifted. As customers returned to the hospitality industry in droves, many workers do not. The US Department of Labor counted 993,000 vacancies in restaurants at the end of March, and their owners are try different tactics to encourage people to apply, including higher wages and bonuses.

Fast food restaurants have been adding self-service kiosks to servers and cashiers for about a decade to increase profit margins and speed up the ordering process.

There has been a debate about the place of such systems in full-service casual restaurants, said John Glass, restaurant director and stock analyst at

Morgan Stanley.

“If face-to-face interaction is important to your brand and you’ve suddenly taken it away, you’ve removed a layer of brand differentiation,” he said.

But more and more full-service chains have started to incorporate what is known as tabletop technology into the dining experience because it has proven its value in both the customer experience and the restaurant’s bottom line, said Deepthi Prakash, global director of Product and Marketing TBWA Worldwide. a

Omnicom group Inc.

Advertising agency.

Ordering through a screen rather than a server means customers are more likely to choose the dishes, replacements, and amount of food they really want without worrying about whether the waiter will judge them, Ms. Prakash said who previously worked with restaurants as an experience design consultant.

“People order more and the tables turn faster because they get their orders and their invoices earlier,” she said.

More from the experience report

Dave & Buster’s, which offers food and drink as well as arcade games to its customers in 141 locations, has allocated approximately $ 5 million to recruitment programs and loyalty initiatives. It is also expanding its contactless service model, which is based on a mobile web platform that runs on the restaurant’s tablets.

“The businesses that operate on this platform have expanded the size of the server areas and reduced staffing levels to become more efficient,” said the company’s chief operating officer, Margo Manning, on a call with investors in June. By July, all of the chain’s restaurants will operate on the new model, she said.

The company is also testing a system in two locations, Dallas and Times Square, New York, where customers can use their own phones to order and pay.

“If the guest feels uncomfortable and is looking for the server experience, we can adapt, but what was interesting in both situations was that we had a high level of acceptance among the guests,” said Ms. Manning.

Restaurants are also adopting more sophisticated back-of-house technologies to make things easier for employees. Cracker Barrel said it will be testing a new work system this summer that it hopes will streamline and simplify the work of managers. And

Restaurants Darden Inc.,

The owner of Olive Garden plans to improve the user interface of the system used by its managers as well as the central point of sale system.

Applebee’s, which is owned by. is

Your brands worldwide Inc.,

launched handheld tablets for servers in around 500 of its 1,705 restaurants. Previously, the waiters had to write down orders and then go to a dedicated point-of-sale computer to send them to the kitchen. Now they can send orders from the table, which improves order accuracy and speeds service, the company said.

“The bottom line is that servers love these tablets because they make their jobs easier and enable them to make more money,” said John Cywinski, president of the barbeque and bar chain, in a call to investors.

Write to Katie Deighton at katie.deighton@wsj.com

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