Paige Gould recalls her early days hosting at Central Provisions, the popular Old Port restaurant she co-owns with her husband, chef Chris Gould.

The line of customers waiting to get in was always ridiculously long in July and August, “an onslaught of people,” Gould says.

“I didn’t have a chance to breathe in between people,” she said. “It was just person after person after person after person.”

Software, it turns out, was her salvation.

Today, Gould relies on a waitlist app from Cake, a software program that helps restaurants manage tables and seat customers more quickly. She collects a name and number from each party as they arrive, then sends them on their way so no diners linger at the front of the restaurant while they wait for a table – they can go get a drink instead, or maybe do a little shopping in the Old Port. As soon as Gould sees a group of people leaving a table, all she has to do is press a button, and the app sends a text to the next party on the wait list. They have about 10 minutes to return to the hostess stand and claim their table.

“It frees everybody up not to have to wait at the restaurant,” Gould said.

New technology, from simple apps that speed up the ordering process to robots that help busy bartenders make Jell-O shots, is making inroads into the restaurant business. But with concerns over the cost and the impact on customers’ dining experience, embracing some of these changes may take time – especially in smaller, independently owned restaurants like most of those in Portland.

A 2016 survey by the National Restaurant Association shows that when it comes to using technology, more restaurateurs consider themselves lagging than leading edge. It’s no surprise, then, that a quarter of those surveyed said they planned to devote more resources to technology in the coming year.

Nationally, franchisees and chains are way ahead, offering services such as tabletop ordering (Chili’s, Red Robin, Applebee’s), online ordering and delivery (Denny’s), self-service touch screen kiosks (Panera, McDonald’s), and voice recognition for ordering via online apps and the drive-thru (Starbucks, Domino’s).

McDonald’s is installing self-service kiosks in 2,500 restaurants this year; the restaurant on Gorham Road in South Portland is the first McDonald’s in Maine to have them.

It’s taking longer for some of this technology to trickle down to smaller, independently owned restaurants, and for good reason, says Aaron Pastor, an independent consultant who helps Portland restaurants figure out what kind of software would work best for them. Often new technology is just seen as “one more expense,” Pastor says, and it can be hard for smaller restaurants, especially, to see the benefits – even with a program that costs just $40 a month.

Gould says the waiting list software used at Central Provisions costs just under $60 a month, but prices for restaurant software can vary widely. She recently was contacted about new software that is basically “a cloud-based filing cabinet”; it tracks inventory and invoices, and can pay bills and write checks. The system started at $150 for 100 invoices and cost 75 cents for each invoice thereafter.

“I think you would find yourself very hard pressed to find people who would be willing to spend this much money for this kind of product,” she said. “A lot of this technology that they’re coming up with is helpful, but a lot of times it’s superfluous information. If you’re actually paying attention to what’s going on, you already know these things.”

Pastor says what he sees most locally is restaurants grabbing the “low-hanging fruit” of technology – programs that improve the way things are run behind the scenes, such as a scheduling system used by Bayside Bowl in Portland. Using these programs, cooks and servers can simply check their phones to see who’s working, ask for a shift change, or request time off.

Staff illustration by Michael Fisher

“It’s a good way to communicate with all your employees at once, instead of a text chain or sending emails,” Pastor said.

Pastor also recently helped Bayside Bowl with event-booking software that takes deposits online and performs other tasks that “removes time and stress off the catering managers’ plate.”

Pastor says before adding any new technology, restaurants should first ask themselves two questions: One, does it improve internal communication, and two, does it improve the diner’s experience?

“If I don’t think it’s going to do either one of those,” he said, “then I shouldn’t be thinking about it.”

Although the restaurant association’s survey shows that a third of restaurants now have their own smart phone apps – an easy way for customers to order a meal from anywhere – there are also challenges that come with the apps: Will it work well with the restaurant’s existing electronic management system? What if the staff is suddenly overwhelmed by a lot of incoming take-out and delivery orders?

Locally, Otto has an online ordering app, as does Big J’s Chicken Shack at Thompson’s Point. Otto’s app allows you to earn rewards and track your order, much like the popular Domino’s pizza tracker that follows your order from prep to delivery.

In the case of Big J’s, the app was designed for the restaurant by the same company that designed their electronic point-of-sale system (the place where sales are made), according to Justin Roig, operations manager for 5th Food Group, the restaurant group that owns Big J’s. When a customer places an order, the app puts it directly into the Big J’s system, and the order prints out in the kitchen. When the order is ready, a front-of-house employee clicks a button and the system texts the customer that their order is ready for pick-up.

“It’s almost entirely removed of human interaction,” Roig said. “The only interaction between the customer and the front-of-house person is handing it off to them and asking them if they need more napkins.”

While the app allows customers to order take-out from anywhere, Big J’s has seen the biggest benefit right at the restaurant, which is directly adjacent to Bissell Brothers Brewing Co.’s 250-seat tasting room. Big J’s has a pick-up window that looks out over the tasting room so Bissell customers can order food with their apps while enjoying a beer.

“They have all of our menus on their tables,” Roig explained. “You can be sitting there getting beer and decide you want food, and instead of having a server, you just go on your phone and order food and then walk over and pick it up at the window.”

Big J’s customers benefit, he said, from fewer errors in orders since they are ordering themselves; also, they don’t have to wait in a long line to get their food. For the restaurant, it means more orders are possible without having to hire more staff.

Paige Gould says they had tried a different ordering software at Central Provisions that enabled the restaurant to experiment with digital tableside ordering. Each server was given an iPod touch that sent orders directly to the kitchen, cutting out the time they otherwise would spend walking back to the computer across the room to enter the order.

“Cutting out those couple of minutes every single time, it adds up,” Gould said. “It means the orders are getting to everybody faster. It also means that there’s less likelihood for mistakes.”

Unfortunately, the program still had too many glitches, so the restaurant dropped it. But the biggest drawback?

“A lot of people thought that the servers were being extremely rude and were playing on their phones,” Gould said.

Gould said she “loves the concept” of digital tableside ordering and would try it again. But she would never use the tabletop tablets like some of the big chains do.

“I hope you don’t ever see that go into the small business places,” she said, “because the whole point of small business is you are able to have that personal touch.”

Customers like that personal touch too – although they might be willing to give it up for a robot that makes Jell-O shots.

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