January 16, 2004

Thorntons unwraps touch screen

Fast-food order system trims labor

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The Courier-Journal

The new touch-screen kiosk at the Thorntons at Interstate 65 and Fern Valley Road lets customers order takeout food. The store is the first in the chain, which is based in Louisville, to get the system.

Tony Harris, vice president of information technology for Thorntons, showed how the new touch screen works. He said the ordering kiosks were always part of Thorntons' plans to expand the food offerings at its stores through its Quick Cafes, rolled out in 2002.

Joseph Jones, deli chef at Thorntons, prepared food that had been ordered via touch screen.

Hungry drivers can get in touch with the future of fast food at a local Thorntons convenience store, where ordering a sandwich has become an exercise in fingertip control.

The Thorntons Quick Cafe and Market at Fern Valley Road and Interstate 65 is the first store of the Louisville chain to install touch-screen ordering kiosks for its made-to-order sandwich service.

Using the screen, Thorntons customers can get a guided tour through a dozen screens of menu choices and extras options, place an order and pick it up a few minutes later without exchanging a word with the person behind the deli counter.

It's a labor-saving and cost-cutting concept that fast-food companies nationwide have been experimenting with. McDonald's has tested a touch-screen system in Denver and Raleigh, N.C., and has been considering a broader roll-out.

The system could reduce the time to take and fill an order and cuts down on mistakes in ordering.

"I really like the menu," said John Richardson of Lyndon, who tried out the system yesterday. He thinks it will avoid botched orders. "I'm policing it rather than the cashier," he said. "I know it's going to be correct because I'm entering the information."

Tony Harris, vice president of information technology for Thorntons, said the ordering kiosks were always part of Thorntons' plans to expand the food offerings at its stores through its Quick Cafes, rolled out in 2002. Without it, the company hasn't been able to achieve some of the speed-of-service and cost efficiencies it had envisioned.

"We think this is a key component to the success of the food program" at Thorntons, he said. "Wherever we put food in, this will go in."

The company is installing the system in a second store, Harris said, a new outlet being built in the Indianapolis area. It could enter existing stores as the company works out design issues for the expanded deli and grocery concept.

Using the touch screen, customers can choose, for example, from picture-and-word icons asking if they want a hamburger or a sub sandwich. If they pick the sandwich, they are asked if they want it hot or cold, then which meats; what cheese; what toppings; extra meat or cheese; combo meal; super-sized drink?

When the order's complete, a receipt slips out from under the screen and the order number gets in line on a 42-inch plasma video screen near the counter. When the order's ready, the number changes color and moves down to a different line. The bill is paid at the checkout.

"It takes a little getting used to," said customer Kenny Mahon, who lives in Louisville's South End, but "if it works all the time, that's pretty cool."

Deli chef Joseph Jones said there haven't been a lot of operating problems. "People push the wrong things sometimes," he said, but those incidents are few.

Louisville firm IDS Engineering developed the software that runs the system through computers the stores use to keep contact with company headquarters. It uses Microsoft .NET software, said Michael W. Golway, co-owner and vice president of sales for IDS Engineering, and can be adapted to most computer hardware systems.

IDS has used the technology for industrial production, packaging and distribution systems, Golway said, but this is the company's first retail application.

IDS approached Thorntons about developing an application for its gas pumps, but the retailer came back with a request for a food-ordering system. IDS had been working on software for an informational kiosk for large retailers such as home-improvement centers and was able to adapt that to the deli system.

The application also added functions such as a pager system that allows the deli clerk to do other work in the store and get an automatic signal when someone is placing an order. It also gives the preparer a detailed recipe for the type and number of each item that goes on the sandwich, so the customer doesn't end up with too many pickles or not enough tomatoes.

Golway said the system could have applications for sit-down restaurants as well, allowing diners to page wait staff for drink refills, for example.

The system has created kitchen efficiencies, helping control food costs, as well as a surge in upscaled orders and larger checks, keys to increasing food-service profits.

"Combination meals are up an estimated 15 percent," Harris said. "We're getting a lot of upsale opportunities we never got with somebody waiting in the (kitchen)."

Not everybody is enthusiastic about the technology. "It's OK, but not for fast food," said Gregory Shedrick, a traveler from Georgia who pulled in off the expressway. "It's more impersonal. I want to tell them what I need, and I want them to tell me what they have and don't have."

Even Mahon, who liked the system, thinks he'll miss conversations with people behind the counter and has his doubts about the screens.

"They can't talk to you about the weather," he said. "Well, I guess they could, if they wanted."

Thorntons unwraps touch screen

Posted by Craig at January 16, 2004 06:45 PM