Waffle House Takes an Old-Fashioned Approach to New Technology

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Waffle House is proudly behind the curve—its wait staff verbally calls in cook-to-order meals, it didn't take credit cards until 2006, and it has long used old-fashioned cash registers.

But some changes are necessary—such as the adoption of EMV-chip cards—and that change is nudging the Norcross, Ga.-based restaurant chain closer to the modern age, with an eye on maintaining its high touch customer service style. The chain turned to hosted software for a partial upgrade; it wanted to modernize payment acceptance but keep its wait staff jotting orders on paper slips rather than make them carry iPads from table to table.

"We're not big on change…we've been doing things our way for 60 years and the people come for that experience," said Pat Warner, vice president of culture for Waffle House. "The calling of the order, the cook remembering the order, the yellow pads that the staff uses to write down orders…stuff like that is part of the show."

Waffle House's example demonstrates the challenge merchant service providers face when deploying technology for businesses that have an unconventional view of the customer experience.

Waffle House found that when it began accepting credit cards, things slowed down. The chain used a card swipe pad next to the old-school cash registers, resulting in a two-step process that created bottlenecks because the chain largely relies on a single cash register rather than having the wait staff take payments.

To address the bottlenecks, the chain has deployed NCR Silver, the vendor's tablet-based technology for card and cash payment acceptance and other merchant services.

About 1,400 Waffle House-owned locations have migrated to a closed Android tablet system, and the company is deploying the same technology at its 450 franchise-owned outlets. The chain reports average transaction times have reduced from 14 seconds to three at locations that use Silver.

Much of the time savings comes from centralizing the card payments process and streamlining the interface used to execute the transaction. Waffle House has retained the customer-facing side of this experience, such as servers yelling orders to cooks.

"The idea of using the point of sale to enter an order didn't appeal to them," said Reggie Kimble, NCR's small business director of business development, adding Waffle House's requirements are different from a lot of merchants that are looking to address huge portions of their business management. "They wanted to continue using pads to take orders and use the point of sale as a payments acceptance device."

The software will help the chain manage the EMV migration as well as buy it time to consider other technology such as mobile and contactless payments.

"We have to migrate to EMV, and we can just download the adjustment when the time comes," Warner said. "As far as mobile payments and m-commerce, we'll see how that fits into our model, and if we decide to go that way, we can also download that."

The Waffle House deployment is a reminder that not all merchants want or even need a fully automated customer experience. And restaurants, which often have a theme, require technology upgrades to fit inside a certain vision that considers the food, layout and customer base.

For NCR, whose Silver product has deployed at merchants who use virtual currency, the LevelUp mobile wallet and Apple Pay, the challenge usually is to accommodate mobile technology's myriad impacts on business, with the payment almost taking a back seat to tasks such as CRM and marketing.

In a case like Waffle House, the challenge is to accommodate the merchant's unique needs, including a deliberate lack of automation, Kimble said. "We didn't take Silver and squeeze it in," Kimble said, adding NCR tweaked Silver to consider the parts of the customer experience that would not be handled by the app.

Cloud-delivered technology can be particularly useful to retailers with localized service demands, said Mary Monahan, executive vice president and research director for mobile for Javelin Strategy & Research.

"While anyone can provide a streamlined mobile point of sale offering, specialized software has been created for particular verticals, such as the restaurant industry," Monahan said.

Restaurants may want an automated system to handle seating, food allergies or inventory management. "The restaurant chain doesn’t have to turn these features on, but they are almost irresistible," Monahan said. 

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