McDonald's' best-kept secret may be that - in the US at least - it offers free WiFi with every meal. In the UK, it's not so generous. In the UK, a deal with BT Openzone gives expensive WiFi in some branches, with unconfirmed reports of free WiFi at others.

Over in the US, more than 8,000 McDonald's restaurants provide high-speed wireless service to customers. The fast food giant has yet to fully promote the perk, but it has already attracted one group: Gamers using Nintendo DS systems currently account for 25 percent of the WiFi traffic in its restaurants.

Although WiFi attracts customers, that's not why McDonald's put it in. "It gives us a platform to use wireless applications within the restaurant," says David Grooms, vice president of IT at McDonald's USA.

For example, handheld devices are used for order-taking and inventory management. But since McDonald's has opened up access to draw in more customers, "getting the word out that we are a secured wireless haven is really big for us this year," Grooms says.

WiFi is just one of several technologies that are beginning to transform the restaurant business. Others include tools for automating operations, contactless payment systems, kiosks, digital menu boards, and Web and mobile ordering and payment technologies. Such innovations are a big leap for an industry that only recently began accepting debit and credit cards, and change is still coming slowly.

"Most operators don't even know what's out there," says Aaron Allen, founder and CEO of Quantified Marketing Group in Orlando.

"Restaurants are the industry that technology forgot," says Steve Bigari, chief executive of I3 Consulting and Management Service in Colorado Springs and a former McDonald's franchise operator. But he sees disruptive technologies shaking up the business in the next five years. "Restaurants that lead are going to put a lot of people out of business," he predicts.

Wireless raises productivity - but it's scary

Of the one in three restaurant operators using more technology than they were three years ago, half say that they've increased productivity, according to a survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association. As for the other two-thirds, tight margins and fear of alienating customers have been factors in their reluctance.

"The industry has kept a lot of technologies at arm's length because of the feeling that it takes away part of the romance" of dining out, Allen says. Even so, 50 percent of fast food operators polled plan to allocate a larger proportion of their budgets to technology this year.

Strong growth is fueling the move toward automation. The US restaurant industry will hit $537 billion in sales this year, according to the National Restaurant Association. Much of that growth comes from changing consumer habits. In 1995, 25 percent of all food dollars was spent in restaurants. Today, it's 48 percent. Technology is also appealing because food service is notoriously labour-intensive, employing 12.8 million Americans. "When you apply any technology, the gains can be quite substantial," says Hudson Riehl, senior vice president of research at the association.

"For any of our clients that don't have these systems, the competitive disadvantage is scary," says Allen.

Turbo drive-through

Drive-through orders can account for up to 75 percent of restaurant sales, according to Greg Buzek, president of IHL Consulting Group in, Tennessee. But ordering is a significant bottleneck. That's why Miami Management, which owns 16 Wendy's franchises, is using voice-over-IP (VoIP) and call centre technology for speed ordering at drive-throughs at three stores. It plans to have its remaining stores online by June.

Brian Fields, director of operations at the Wendy's franchisee in Lexington Kentucky, says that an integrated point-of-sale (POS) system from Massachusetts-based Exit41 places two order stations in front of the drive-through lane. The system also uses broadband and VoIP technology to relay customer orders to a call centre run by Miami Management in Lexington. Completed orders are immediately relayed to the store's kitchen order screens and POS station.

From the order stations, traffic merges into a single lane where customers pay and pick up their orders. A digital camera associates an image of the customer and vehicle with each order so that customers are billed correctly and receive the right food. The system has increased peak lunch-hour traffic from 112 cars per hour to 137, says Fields.

The system also improves order accuracy because of the clarity of the VoIP connection and because the call centre staff focuses only on taking orders. Voids from incorrect orders have dropped by half. Fields says that the system will pay for itself in less than three years.

Next, Fields wants to let customers swipe a card at the order station and skip a stop at the payment window. That capability, says Exit41 chief executive Joe Gagnon, could speed transactions in more ways than one. Since more than 50 percent of customers place the same order every time, Exit41's systems may soon associate the credit, debit or gift card with the customer's order history, present his regular order and ask him to simply confirm it.

You want second helpings of this? Next week we look at call centres.