How Is A Mobile Solution Helping Cafe Chain Au Bon Pain Bring In The Dough?

By Susan Nunziata — September 07, 2008


A smartphone solution is enabling field directors at cafe chain Au Bon Pain to respond to market forces in real time, resulting in increased sales.

Giving its area field directors real-time access to critical sales and labor information was the primary goal for Au Bon Pain when it deployed a series of smartphone-based applications this year.

Each area director is responsible for overseeing operations in six to eight restaurants, including making sure the restaurants are appropriately staffed and stocked. They were previously using laptops to access daily P&L information, but the nature of their work, often conducted in the cramped back rooms of restaurants, made the laptops cumbersome to use. Many were using their laptops as de facto desktops, and printing up daily reports each morning to take with them into the field and taking down information on pen and paper. "The problem with that is you don't have what you really need, when you need it," says Randy Burkhart, VP of I.T. at Au Bon Pain. "Our first objective was, could we deploy information on a smartphone so they had a smaller, unobtrusive form factor that they could carry with them all the time."

Burkhart details several challenges:

  • Could the company's critical applications be used effectively on a smartphone?

  • Could the applications be formatted for the smartphone in a way that the area directors found beneficial?

  • Could the area directors, who were hired for their restaurant operations ability not their technical savvy, learn how to effectively use the devices.

  • Was it possible to achieve a level of security that would protect sensitive data such as daily store sales?

The chain found a partner in Enterprise Mobile that could help it answer all those questions with a resounding yes.

Enterprise Mobile built a mobility strategy from scratch customized for Au Bon Pain's needs and meeting its security requirements. Burkhart says Au Bon Pain preferred to work in the Windows Mobile format. Enterprise Mobile is a Watertown, Mass-based startup whose founder, Mort Rosenthal, was personally tapped by Microsoft's Steve Ballmer to advance Windows Mobile in the enterprise

For the initial pilot, Au Bon Pain chose to mobilize its daily cafe P&L report, an application for which it had data readily available but was going to have to reformat from a user-interface perspective to fit the smartphone. "We wanted to see how much effort that was going to take us," says Burkhart. Within three weeks, Enterprise Mobile worked with Au Bon Pain to reformat the app.

The eight-week pilot began in July 2007 involving nine area directors who had varying degrees of technical acumen.

"The group we started with is all local, so it was very easy for me to bring them into our office," says Burkhart. "With Enterprise Mobile we provided them the rollout of the devices and the training on the devices."

The area directors were given several different smartphones to try out, and they settled on the Motorola Q as their device of choice.

The solution was rolled out to the chain's 45 area directors in spring 2008, and additional applications were added on. First was a forecasting application that predicts cafe sales. Next was an application that compares how those forecasts are stacking up to daily sales. The third app helps manage labor resources, by comparing actual labor to forecasted labor.

Now, the chain is working on developing processes to get the area directors actively involved in affecting the results as they're happening in real time, as opposed to just looking at historical data, says Burkhart.

"In our labor scheduling application, we actually poll the cafe to find out how much labor they need by the hour," says Burkart. "Our particular area of concern is what we call guest-service labor, those people running the cash register, and those people who make sandwiches, where demand is driven by people walking into the cafe. If you walk into an environment and there's a long line you walk away. So the objective is a high level of customer service."

The next piece going into place is an application that will send an area director a text message whenever labor demand in a given cafe is out of line with where it's supposed to be. "They will have the ability from their smartphones to pull up an application to show them exactly how much labor is in place at a cafe and what are they doing. This lets them look at real-time sales as well as real-time labor. So if sales are exceeding forecast, and you need more labor, the area director can potentially move labor from another cafe to help out, they themselves can go help out. On the converse side, if for some reason sales are way off, they can make adjustments in labor to bring labor down."

Adds Burkhart, "Our focus is not just when sales are down how do you reduce labor, but how do you ensure that you're providing the right level of service. As you do that, your sales actually go up."

While he declines to reveal specific sales results, Burkhart says the company is seeing sales go up along with a corresponding reduction in percent of labor, even though the chain is leveraging its existing labor better than it previously had been.

In addition to realizing efficiencies for its area directors, the chain also saved money by consolidating what had been a piecemeal system of individual cellular contracts and myriad devices to one that used a single device under a single service plan with Verizon.

Historically our users could have either been on a corporate contract or on an individual contract, and they expensed their phones," says Burkhart. In fact, some were walking around with cell phones, BlackBerrys and wireless data cards for their laptops.

"We did a study of those that were being expensed, found out how much money we could save by forcing them all onto corporate contracts, and put in place a new policy that everybody would be on corporate contracts." The result? "We were able to pay for the new devices and data plans at no incremental costs."

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