Real-Time Restaurants

Eateries turn to technology to deliver instant gratification.
One day in the future, you will know exactly when your favorite flavor is available without even setting foot in the ice cream shop. You will score a huge deal on your favorite beer just because everyone else is drinking something else. And you will be notified when your favorite bottle of wine is about to sell out, just in time for you to swoop in and claim the last bottle.

The future sounds magical, doesn’t it? Guess what? It’s here.

Technology has already changed the way we learn about new restaurants, get reviews, make reservations and share our dining experiences with our friends. And now technology is revolutionizing the experiences themselves by offering eateries innovative ways to engage customers. In 2012, instant gratification happens, well, instantly.

At Izzy’s Ice Cream Cafe in St. Paul, Minnesota, owners Lara Hammel and Jeff Sommers devised an ingenious way to notify customers when their favorite flavors are available, effectively putting the kibosh on all that screaming for ice cream.

“When you get in line at an ice cream shop and it’s busy, one of the unique things that can happen is that you can’t see the ice cream,” Sommers says. “So you’re left thinking, ‘Gee, I hope they have my favorite flavor today.’”

To ensure that customers would always know what is available, Sommers conceived the groundbreaking Flavor Up! system. Each flavor (they make about 140 each year!) has its own radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag. When an employee puts the flavor in the dipping cabinet, an antenna reads the tag, and the flavor immediately pops up on an in-store monitor.

Eateries turn to technology to deliver instant gratification

The system, which features 40 varieties at any given time, also sends customers an alert via email, Facebook or Twitter, and Izzy’s website broadcasts the current flavors, with updates logged every three minutes. With their favorite flavor on the board, customers are free to race across town to scoop it up, or call in their order for pickup.

“It helps us keep complete confidence with our customers, and communicate with people who like flavors that are rarely made,” Sommers says.

At the Kalamazoo Beer Exchange in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the prices for the 28 rotating draft beers are based on real-time sales, like the stock market. But in this case, a crash is a good thing, because it means the price of a beer drops to its all-time low.

Across the country in Seattle and San Francisco, it’s a drop in quantity, not price, that keeps diners on their toes. Restaurant and wine bar RN74 uses a train-station-style leader board to alert diners when there’s only one bottle left of a featured wine.

The board has become a captivating attraction for guests, but it started as a creative solution to a common problem: How to instantly “86” a bottle from the wine list during a dinner service. “We wanted to take a challenge and turn it into something interactive,” says Eric Perlin, general manager at the restaurant’s Seattle location.

RN74’s wine list includes several one-off bottles, so it’s not uncommon for a selection to sell out. The automated board displays eight to nine of these wines, and when one runs out, it is replaced in the rotation with the next selection.

“We’ll also do fun things like throw a bottle of wine up there for a dollar,” Perlin says, and the restaurant has obliged guests by posting birthday or anniversary wishes. So far, no marriage proposals have been posted, but he doesn’t rule it out.

Perlin says guests are sometimes so eager to see the board move that they’ll buy a displayed bottle just to see what might come up next in the rotation ― an unforeseen but positive perk for the restaurant.

“People really love it,” Perlin says. “You’ll overhear a return guest describe it to a new guest, almost like he’s a concierge for the restaurant. It’s a lot of fun.”