Hi, may our machine take your order?

Times Staff Writer

White or wheat? Cold or toasted? Mayo, mustard, oil, vinegar?

The Subway sandwich chain prides itself on giving customers lots of choices: two dozen sandwiches featuring more than 10 meats and nearly 20 toppings and condiments, each nestled within one of five breads.

That variety also means complexity, and that has kept all but a handful of the company’s 27,000 franchises from offering one choice that matters to millions of customers of fast-food restaurants: walk-in or drive-through?

With the help of new technology -- some of it on display this week at the International Foodservice Technology Exposition in Long Beach -- Subway store operators and other businesses in the $175-billion limited-service restaurant industry have been able to add drive-through and other options for taking orders.


“We are moving to a self-service world,” said Don Turner, chief executive of Pro-Tech Solutions Inc. of Suwanee, Ga., which displayed a self-serve ordering kiosk at the show. “Think of an airport. You have a choice of standing in line with 100 people to check in or going to a kiosk where there is no line.”

Some industry executives and analysts believe that self-service ordering could one day be as common as French fries. For now, most restaurants find themselves arriving late to self-service, which was pioneered by automated teller machines at banks and electronic check-in counters at airports.

In the case of Pro-Tech customer Nick D’Angelo, a Subway franchisee in Mentor, Ohio, the impediment was one of numbers. Fourteen, to be exact -- the number of questions a Subway food preparer poses to a customer while making a typical sandwich.

That’s far too much conversation for the radio-operated ordering systems ubiquitous in fast-food drive-throughs, said D’Angelo, who figured he was watching thousands of dollars of lost business motor past his restaurant every week.

D’Angelo solved his drive-through problem this year by spending $15,000 on a Pro-Tech touch-screen kiosk. With the push of a button, it changes height, allowing drivers of Mini Coopers and monster sport utility vehicles alike to punch in their orders with ease.

“If you want to be in this game, you must have a drive-through,” D’Angelo said, referring to a service offered at just 5% of Subway’s outlets. His franchise these days sells $11,000 to $12,000 in sandwiches, chips and drinks a week, about double his take before he added the drive-through.

Devices such as touch-screen ordering kiosks -- whether in the drive-through lane or inside the restaurant -- promise many advances for quick-serve eateries, analysts say.

“It cuts down on labor, ensures accuracy and is often faster and easier for people to use,” said Darren Tristano, a restaurant industry analyst with Technomic Inc. in Chicago.

Yum Brands Inc.'s KFC is testing indoor self-serve kiosks at three locations in Florida. Elsewhere in the state, McDonald’s Corp. franchisee Gary Moulton has spent more than $100,000 to install two or three touch-screen systems inside each of his six restaurants.

The investment is paying off. Moulton said customers using the kiosks spent an average of 20% more per order than those who ordered at the front counter.

“The kiosk will always suggest an item like a drink or a dessert if it is not ordered,” he said. “Front counter servers don’t always do the same.”

Paul Knight, who sells such machines for NCR Corp. of Dayton, Ohio, notes another potential advantage for restaurants.

“Anonymity encourages people to make larger orders,” he said. “They are not embarrassed to super-size something because they aren’t doing it face to face.”

Bob Sandelman, a San Clemente-based restaurant industry consultant, believes that touch-screen ordering will catch on because it addresses three of the top concerns of quick-service customers: order accuracy, convenience and speed.

“Order accuracy is particularly important in the drive-through because the customer won’t discover the mistake until long after they have left the restaurant,” he said.

D’Angelo’s Subway places a printout of the order ticket with each sandwich sold to drive-through customers.

“That way the customer can compare what they ordered to what they got in the sandwich,” he said. “I have only had four or five complaints since we opened the drive-through in March.”

Restaurant industry analysts aren’t surprised at how D’Angelo’s results took off when he added the kiosk. At the big hamburger chains, drive-through sales can account for as much as 60% of business.

D’Angelo said his system paid for itself within months. It has an aluminum outer shell to dissipate heat in the summertime and is rugged enough to survive sleet and snow in winter. He has talked with Pro-Tech about buying a future design that would use a sensor to measure the height of a vehicle’s side mirror as a cue to where to place the touch screen.

Chains including Yum Brands-owned Taco Bell have experimented with touch-screen ordering, but the companies haven’t expanded the programs, citing problems with the software or insufficient customer interest.

An NCR survey in April found that two-thirds of 1,044 respondents would seek out a touch-screen order system at a quick-serve restaurant. Those 35 or younger were the most likely to say they would use kiosks to order food at a restaurant and to check in and out of a hotel. But customers older than 50, or nearing that age, were far more resistant to the idea. Fewer than 20% of those 65 or older were willing to try.

When a customer touches the screen of the NCR system -- a newer version of what Moulton is using in his McDonald’s stores -- a soothing female voice says, “Welcome,” and menu options pop up. The voice and the menu immediately highlight the “best value,” or daily special.

The screen then walks the user through the options, starting with entrees such as hamburgers, moving to French fries and other side orders and then finishing with drinks and desserts.

One screen allows the customer to modify the selections, such as adding extra cheese to a burger or holding the mayonnaise. The screen then displays the completed order and asks whether it is correct. Patrons can pay with cash or with credit, debit or gift cards.

A small but growing number of Subway stores are adopting self-ordering technology, said Kevin Kane, a spokesman for the chain, which is owned by Doctor’s Associates Inc. of Milford, Conn.

Some New York franchisees are experimenting with taking orders sent via text messages from mobile phones, Kane said.

“We have to look at all of this,” he said. “Technology is changing, and you don’t want to be left behind.”