Tropical Smoothie revamps payments to fatten its 'share of stomach'

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The “Starbucks effect” is being felt far beyond coffee retailers, as food chains work feverishly to accommodate the shift to mobile payments.

In this way, technology has become just as important as the food itself.

“Anytime you have anyone who is serving good food or beverages, that’s competition for space of stomach,” said Marina O'Rourke, vice president of IT for Tropical Smoothie Café, an Atlanta-based chain that just opened its 700th location. “We want to be able to move as many people as possible through each daypart.”
Tropical Smoothie sells blended smoothies, wraps, sandwiches and flatbreads, so its core menu is different from most quick service restaurants. But the challenge is the same, since like other chains it has to handle a spike of foot traffic at certain times, serving people whose choice of restaurants is often based on how fast they get in and out.

Payments automation is hardly new at quick service restaurants, which have the perfect model for new innovation. From mobile payments’ beginnings, quick service establishments such as McDonalds and Burger King were fast to adopt new technology as a line-buster.

At Tropical Smoothie, a new IT project will deploy new cloud-hosted point of sale terminals, handheld devices and kitchen display systems over the next few weeks across its 700-location footprint. These will be tied to a back end management system for reporting and multi-location menu and store management. The chain will also integrate with third-party software vendors through an API, and later will migrate its drive-through system.

The network of tech can be localized for store locations or users, and will connect payments, menus and management to specials and marketing.

But mobile migrations have not always worked out as planned, and even Starbucks—generally considered the market leader for mobile ordering — has suffered technology glitches.

And outside of Starbucks, contactless payments for retail chains have lagged in the U.S. Other ideas, such as the “no cash” store or the cashierless store, are still mostly experimental and lack broad demographic appeal, at least in the short term.

Tropical Smoothie will give patrons some control over the experience, as a means of reducing the friction for both consumers and staff. This is also allows the system to adapt to Tropical Smoothie's varying retail models such as standalone locations, drive through-dominated locations,seasonal footprint variances.

“One thing we’re doing is designing the interface to be easy to use, similar to how we all customized our phones and digital devices,” O’Rourke said. “The tech allows for each staff member to customize the interface for themselves, so they are comfortable with the technology.”

Tropical Smoothie is using retail technology from Appetize, a Los Angeles-based company that will provide a cloud-delivered point of sale, self-serve, mobile commerce and back end management. Many of Appetize’s clients are in sports and entertainment, where the technology powers ticketing, mobile apps, and venue payments through the same system—often for events in which the staff moves about a venue to take orders and deliver concessions.

That will drive Tropical Smoothie’s plan to increase staff engagement with consumers, and rely less on static point of sale terminals while retaining that as an option.

“There are more opportunities to have the food brought to you,” O’Rourke said. “And you have all of the data points and ordering in the point of sale system.”

Appetize has in the past year has collaborated with software developers to enable a system in which differences between different payment types fades and the defined roles — such as processor, acquirer and gateway — disappear. This model helps serve a world in which large entertainment events, such as Appetize’s sports clients, have more traditional store-like payment needs; and quick service stores start to take on more mobile and less static customer interaction.

“You want cashiers to be able to go out into the line to take payments, to go to the drive through or to a catering event with the same system,” said Kevin Anderson, chief strategy officer at Appetize.

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