SPECIAL REPORT: Inamo syncs front and back-of-house with new tech

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Many operators fear that bringing technology into kitchens and front-of-house, especially in the form of ordering systems, can throw off the balance of an operation. Inamo is one chain which is embracing technology and insisting that it is able to maintain seamless kitchen operations in spite of new ordering systems.

Sushi restaurant Inamo is pioneering the way for technology in restaurants. Its front-of-house lighting, projectors, interactive tables and iPad ordering are designed to create a dining experience not found anywhere else. But how has this front-of-house technological extravaganza impacted on kitchen operations and back-of-house equipment?

The main front-of-house feature which has the potential to impact on the kitchen is the food ordering system. Guests choose dishes on an iPad placed at each table and orders are sent directly to the kitchen, taking a waiter out of the equation. Once an order is sent, a ticket is printed at the appropriate chef’s station. There is an inherent risk with this system that the kitchen can be unpredictably flooded with orders and put under additional pressure it would not usually experience. As CEO Lee Skinner explains: “In a normal restaurant the front-of-house can dictate the pace of what’s being ordered. With us, once a guest is sat they have complete control.”

Similar to the challenge that QSRs first face when introducing self-service kiosks, allowing guests control of order pace is clearly a risk to kitchens, but Inamo has managed to solve this problem with remarkably simple steps. The group ensures chef training and development is a priority, its mise en place is always ready, its kitchen is highly organised and that its menu works. According to Skinner, chefs can get most dishes out in around two or three minutes. These protocols have meant that kitchen equipment has not had to be adapted or set up differently at all.

Inamo’s glass kitchen brings walk-in business and reassures customers of freshley prepared food.

Inamo’s glass kitchen brings walk-in business and reassures customers of freshley prepared food.

“It’s all off-the-shelf equipment,” says Skinner. “We’ve got normal steamers in there, hot plates, fryers etc. It’s just the process and the menu that we look at. We develop two menus a year and we probably spend about three months on each menu developing it because we want to do a complete overhaul.”

One piece of technology which connects front- and back-of-house more directly than any other is Inamo’s ‘chef cam’, which allows guests to watch their food being prepared live in the kitchen. Skinner insists this addition has only had a positive impact on chefs, who he says are not put under extra pressure by guests peering down on them whilst they cook. He says: “It’s never really been an issue. They tend to forget about it and it becomes the norm. The chefs have just embraced it and they see it as a way forward and as highlighting their skills.”

“In a normal restaurant the front-of-house can dictate the pace of what’s being ordered. With us, once a guest is sat they have complete control”

Building on this, Inamo’s Camden site, one of three in London, features a glass kitchen so guests can see directly inside. Whilst open kitchens are nothing new for restaurant chains who like to offer guests theatre, Inamo’s glass kitchen goes one step further. “It takes the kitchen into the restaurant and it gives that whole picture – people eat with their eyes,” comments Skinner. “It’s all about guests getting the security that they’re being well catered for.”

At The Casual Dining Show recently, TGI Fridays’ CEO Karen Forrester explained how her move towards open kitchen designs at the chain helped build trust with guests who could see food was made fresh. For Inamo, a sushi restaurant, a glass kitchen is arguably essential for proving to guests that food is made fresh to order. One final benefit of a glass kitchen, says Skinner, is that it attracts a significant walk-in business. For a restaurant in Camden, this is far more crucial than in the West End, Skinner believes.

Purging paper
Whilst an open kitchen and ‘chef cam’ helps to reassure guests about fresh food, Inamo has brought in further technology that uses cold, hard data to reassure senior management that its kitchens are pristine, food safety is immaculate, sites are complying with Environmental Health Officer (EHO) standards and HACCP procedures are being followed. Ten months ago the restaurant group invested in Checkit – a food safety management system which uses a handheld memo device that is connected to temperature probes. All the data collected by the probes, such as fridge temperatures, is uploaded to a cloud where it can be stored and analysed. The device can also be set to create alerts for staff on anything the operator chooses, for example supplier delivery times, cleaning tasks and reminders.

Checkit can be used as a task management system.

Checkit can be used as a task management system.

Skinner explains his choice to get on board with the Checkit system: “I needed to understand where we were in terms of sushi because sushi is a highly critical product from an EHO point of view. Rice is also a massive issue for EHOs. Rice can cause considerable difficulties if you get it wrong. For me as CEO of the company I take full responsibility that every one of our customers that comes into our restaurant can have safe food.”

Checkit, whose clients include The Ritz, Ginsters, Quorn Foods and a host of other foodservice firms, hopes to replace the use of paper recorded data at restaurants. Outlining the system, commercial director, Andy Penfold, explains how replacing pen and paper checks with electronic records has considerable compliance benefits. He highlights how collecting accurate and consistent data and presenting it to EHOs in an accessible digital format has untold advantages when it comes to environmental health audits. Penfold reveals: “A Michelin star restaurant was recently given a one out of five hygiene rating. Their standards were fantastic but they didn’t have the paperwork or the data readily available for the EHO inspectors. All their data was stored on paper and it was inaccessible during the inspection.”

But far from scare mongering foodservice operators about failure of compliance, Checkit highlights how it is also able to improve operations at groups like Inamo. Penfold claims that of the 350,000 restaurants in the UK, 95% carry out kitchen checks using pen and paper and that this has issues.

“According to Deloitte, the turnover of staff in restaurants equates to a 31% attrition rate so every year you’re going to have to retrain three out of 10 of your staff on the systems you’re operating at your sites. It’s also time-consuming to do a check manually using paper, especially during a busy service,” comments Penfold. He adds that paying staff to complete checks carries costs with it. For Penfold, Checkit can reduce the amount of time employees have to work across the year completing checks, thereby saving money on salaries.

“I want what gives us the biggest bang for buck and at the moment I want more guest-orientated technology than I want kitchen-orientated technology”

Aside from cost savings and improvements at individual sites, restaurant groups like Inamo have been able to take advantage of data collection at multiple sites. Senior management is able to compare KPIs across sites, compare trends, compare staff and shifts and, importantly, compare which pieces of kitchen equipment are underperforming or costing the business money. Ultimately, collecting data on kitchen checks and whatever else an operator wants Checkit to collect data on, can help a business to take a more analytical approach to operations and act on the bigger picture.

Ordering - table

Inamo claims its ordering system does not overpressure chefs.

But what happens to all the data collected? Foodservice operators are increasingly at risk from cyber hackers attempting to hack into businesses through ‘smart’ equipment. Managing director of Checkit, David Davies, insists the technology is ‘bulletproof’. He ensures: “It’s all stored in a secure data centre and is all encrypted in the database. All clients have their own log-in that they control to see their own data. In terms of the actual links between the product, for example the probe to the memo and the memo to the cloud, that’s industry-leading standard secure technology too. It’s as bulletproof as we can make it.”

The results so far for Inamo have been promising. In addition to being able to compare across its sites and make operational adjustments accordingly, Skinner notes how chefs have more time and that the whole process of the restaurant is smoother through the task management alerts. Inamo has also found that kitchen porters have become more involved in completing tasks when they see alerts flashing on the Checkit device, removing pressure from chefs.

Checkit’s probes send data directly to the data cloud.

Checkit’s probes send data directly to the data cloud.

Installing technology at every level however has brought with it teething problems for Inamo, which may be a cause for concern for some operators looking to adopt new systems. “The challenges have been huge,” admits Skinner, continuing: “In Camden we were a week delayed on opening because the fibre optic wasn’t live. There’re huge issues. We had some issues with WiFi in Covent Garden where the signal was bouncing off all the metal casings in the kitchen. With IT there’re massive challenges and especially with something like WiFi signals, it’s not something you’re necessarily thinking about. In the end we hardwired all the projectors and there were still problems, so we switched the socket over and it solved it and it was as a simple as that. It’s just trial and error.”

Where is it headed?
Inamo’s tech implementation seems to be working in terms of improving compliance, kitchen operations, syncing front-of-house with back-of-house and all the while creating an experience for guests. Where then, does Skinner want to take the brand in the next five to 10 years?

“Hopefully another 20 or so restaurants,” he responds. “I think we’ll have more technology in the kitchen, for example order screens. I would love to get to a KBS screen, I would love to manage the service off that rather than bits of paper tickets. I want to try and get paper out of the business.” Nevertheless, Inamo will still limit its investment in kitchen technology, ruling out the possibility of fully-automated cooking any time soon. Skinner states: “I want what gives us the biggest bang for buck and at the moment I want more guest orientated technology than I want kitchen orientated technology.”

As the brand expands, Skinner is confident that the technology it has in place at its three sites will roll-out with relative ease. Most of its technology is provided by a sister company and Skinner reveals the firm is already talking to franchisees. “We’ve just done two restaurants in 10 months; big sites, high volume, high investment. And both have been successful,” comments Skinner, outlining his appetite for growth and the potential Inamo has to roll out its systems across multiple sites, should the opportunity rise.

The restaurant industry is already moving and changing as technology is increasingly brought into the fold. Inamo is proof that automated ordering and ‘gadgets’ can be advantageous if adopted on a step-by-step basis. Certainly, digital food safety systems like Checkit can be invaluable to operators in terms of compliance and comparing multiple sites. But how far, if at all, operators can go in terms of adopting technology en masse before the balance between the kitchen and front-of-house is thrown off remains to be seen. If though, like Inamo, a gradual automation approach is taken, it is evident that businesses can run smoother, more profitable and safer restaurants.

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