Comedy Catch lets waitstaff wirelessly blink back orders

Comedy Catch lets waitstaff wirelessly blink back orders

July 13th, 2011 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

Comedy Catch patrons Laura Turner, right, and Brad Turner give their beverage order to Samantha Sharp before a show. The wait staff uses a hand-held electronic order device to expedite customers requests. Tommy Carroll, far left, sits with his wife Kim, view obstructed.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

Waitress Samantha Sharp glided effortlessly over to a table of hungry patrons at The Comedy Catch, then leaned forward so she could make out their orders over the comedic stylings of funnyman Adam Hunter.

At most venues, she would whip out a pad of paper and pull a pencil from behind her ear, but not at The Comedy Catch. Instead, Sharp transmits orders directly to the Chattanooga club's kitchen, tapping away on a wireless personal digital assistant that emits a blue glow in the room's low light.

Comedy Catch owner Michael Alfano is among the first restaurateurs in the Chattanooga area to combine wireless technology with a touchscreen minitablet to cut down on the time it takes to get food from the kitchen to customers.

"Others have tried and failed to get this system to work," Alfano said. "But the risk is well worth it in the long run."

Customer Dustin Edmondson said he had not before seen a waitress write out a ticket with an electronic stylus.

"As long as they know what they're doing, it's fine," he said. "Like anything technological, it's easier to mess up than just a piece of paper."

Glitches, crashes

Mount Vernon restaurant owner Jeff Messinger, Tennessee's 2009 restaurateur of the year, said he likes the idea of the PDAs, but added that like any computer they have the potential to crash - and at the worst possible time.

"Usually it'll be Saturday night, on a Valentine's night," he said. "We have to train, and have a backup plan for going manually."

Relying too heavily on technology always carries the potential for a critical failure that will leave a bad taste in customers' mouths, Messinger said.

Of course, Alfano has experienced growing pains along the way. Sometimes his WiFi connection becomes unresponsive and has to be reset manually. The devices also require significantly more training than a paper notepad, and some employees take longer to figure out the interface.

And finally, it's an expensive solution - around $700 for each BPA RapidServer Handheld Restaurant PC, sold by Business Software Solutions in Layton, Utah.

But it makes up for the hurdles with its pure, raw speed, Alfano said.

As soon as Sharp presses the "send" button on her handheld, the wireless signal travels to a computer on the other side of the building, where the software splits off the bar orders from the food orders. The signal then hops to small printers in the kitchen and bar, all before Sharp has had time to put the device back in her pocket.

"At first, using it was scary and everyone asked me if I was texting, but we got used to it," Sharp said.

She likes it because, at about the same size as an iPhone, it can be slipped into her pocket when she isn't using it, as opposed to other tablet options which are larger and more unwieldy.

Comedy tech

Besides saving his servers the trips back and forth to the kitchen to give the chef a paper ticket, "It's also something the customers find quite intriguing," Alfano said.

And the comics like it, too, according to local comedian D.J. Lewis.

"It's easier to work when you don't have people walking back and forth, and tearing tickets in front of you," Lewis said.

It's always been a challenge to serve dozens of customers in a few minutes before the comics get on stage, but that challenge has gotten easier of late, Alfano said.

The rush starts when 50 to 80 patrons file in between 7:15 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., followed a few minutes later by the beginning of the show. It's therefore imperative to get the kitchen working on the orders in all haste, Alfano said.

"For them to have to go back to the kitchen every three to four orders, and punch in the orders could take 13 to 14 minutes," he said. "Also, sometimes the food would come out faster for the last person to order than for the first, and that just doesn't look good."

Though Alfano's solved a lot of his problems by switching to a wireless ordering system, he soon may be facing another problem, albeit a good one to have - a plethora of choices.

He's using mobile hardware designed by tech giant Hewlett-Packard, but competitors for the restaurant space already are making headlines.

A few restaurants across the nation have begun to use Apple iPads, and some have replaced the concept of a human being altogether, according to some reports.

At those restaurants, customers build their meal from their table on an iPad running a piece of custom software, cutting out the waiter altogether.

But Alfano hasn't gotten to that point yet, believing that servers are a key part of the dining experience for customers.

"Right now we're hoping to get mobile credit card machines in the next year so we can swipe 'em at the table," he said.