The Challenges of Automation in Food Service

In this complex world in which we live, technology has become an integral part of our lives. Ubiquitous now by nature, we are hopelessly dependent upon it yet take it for granted every single day. How did it get this way with seemingly so little effort? The answer is simple…it crept into our lives bit by bit, byte by byte, so slowly and comfortably that we hardly noticed. Think back to the first time you had to figure out email and I am sure you will recall it was a struggle at first but today you would be challenged without it. Running a large operation is challenging and we rely on technology for the collection, exchange and distribution of information that ultimately makes our work (and home) life easier to manage.

But what happens when you need to automate a large, cumbersome and somewhat unwieldy process like transaction management, meal plans and point of sale for your community? What are the things you need to think about before implementation? This is not exactly like learning how to use email yet many approach it in a similar mind-set. What appears to be a seemingly straight forward and simple process turns out to be far more complex that you ever imagined.

Time and Resources
Inevitably, those who are encountering their first major technology implementation project are caught off guard by the time & resources required for a successful implementation. Far too often, time is budgeted for initial training on the system only and not for advance preparation, decision making and general process review. On top of this, despite being trained on a new system, your team will still take a while to get up to speed and enjoy the efficiencies the technology can offer.

Tips for Budgeting time allocation:

  • For every hour of official training time involved for administrators:

  • budget 2 hours of preparation time in advance of the implementation. This time will cover off the review of your current practices & policies, and how they will now be managed through the system.

  • budget 2 hours of time for organization and preparation of data that will need to be entered into the new system (varies with volume of data and size of your operation).

  • budget 1 hour of training time with key front-of-house team members.

  • Budget anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months (again, dependent upon the size of your operation) for front line staff to become efficient on the new system which means during that time, productivity will be lower than what you may be accustomed to not to mention your own time to address questions and on-the-floor training issues.

 Advance Planning & Decision Making
Behind every transaction, behind every meal plan, behind every Resident or Employee, there is an intricate web of policies and practices that govern how a system should operate to ensure accuracy, equity and serenity in your community. Your approach to this will largely govern the success of your implementation and subsequently the effectiveness of your operation.

In the early stages of planning, you and your team will need to review and answer some critical questions including:

  • How will your main dining room operate once automated? A-la-carte order entry? Meal Click only? Combination?

  • What process will be followed from the time the Resident arrives to the time they leave? (ie order process / work and service flow).

  • Which items are taxable?

  • Which items are meal plan eligible?

  • Who will take ownership of the day-to-day maintenance of the item files / menus on the system?

  • Will you use menu cycles in your environment?

  • Who will take ownership for regular training of staff on the system

  • Who will take ownership for billing and reporting?

  • Who will have authority for handling back-office adjustments (eg. refunds/ credits, etc)

  • What do the meal plans look like (characteristics)?

  • Will you restrict use of meal plans in any way such as by location, consumption amounts, guest transactions, time of day, etc.

  • Will you have charge plans for residents? If so, what terms and conditions apply?

  • What locations within your community should be automated / on the system? What is time line for roll-out for these locations? (ie. phased or all-at-once?)

  • What policy will be in place for Residents who have concerns about their bills? Who will they speak to for resolution?

  • Which team members will have privileges to view, create, edit or delete information on the system?

  • Who will add new residents / cardholders to the system and where will this be carried out. Who will issue the new ID Cards and who will supervise / audit this procedure?

  • Will you export charges from CARDWATCH? If not, what process and procedure will be used to do this manually?

  • If using the billing export feature, what GL Codes will you use to import charges by for resident billing? (summary or detail info?) Will you need to create new billing codes?

  • Will Employees be on the system? If so, what type of plan will they be on? Pre-paid, charge & payroll deduction, subsidized, fixed meals?

  • What reporting is important to (a) food service, (b) finance and (c) operations?

  • What payment types will be accepted at each location? In-house charge, cash, bank credit / dedit card?

  • Will the system need to communicate with other 3rd party software applications? If so, define the requirements well in advance.


Gary McMullen has over 30 years experience in the Point of Sale and Privilege Management (meal & spending plans) industry and has provided consulting services to the Retirement Community and seniors housing market to help shape what is possible today.