Last week we heard about fast food restaurants using wireless and VOIP. This week, we hear bout self-service kiosks and digital signage.

Call centre technology hasn't been limited to drive-throughs. Pizza Hut automates delivery orders with a service from Jacent Technologies in Santa Clara, California, that combines a hosted call centre with an option to use an automated attendant with natural-language speech-recognition capabilities. Orders are distributed to the appropriate store's kitchen and then to the POS system for payment. "We have plug-ins for different systems," says Trevor Stout, Jacent's chief executive.

That's important because in many chains, franchisees use various point of sale (POS) systems, making technology initiatives more complex, says Buzek. "The next big trend is replacement of the POS and moving to more open systems," Stout says.

Self-serve kiosks, which have languished for years, may finally be ready to take off. Buzek says the average price of an order taken at kiosks is 20 percent to 25 percent higher, and the kiosk "always asks you if you want to upsize."

The latest IBM POS registers have displays that face the customer and enough processing power to drive full-motion video, says Jerry Leeman, worldwide segment manager for food service and hospitality at IBM.

Unstaffed order stations can be configured as self-service kiosks, complete with swipe-card readers. These have been popular at a deli chain that's doing a pilot because customers can customise orders and ensure they're right, Leeman says.

Digital signage - pushing the message

Signage is the biggest obstacle to the timely rollout of new products in fast food restaurants, Leeman says, and digital menu boards could help resolve that.

Digital menus are typically LCD or plasma displays that combine video images with live menus that can be updated from a central location. Likewise, digital paper - electronically updatable displays that retain the image even after power is turned off - could allow for rapid wireless updates of window signage. The problem, Leeman says, is that digital displays are still a major capital expense, although prices are continuing to drop.

As the technology becomes more economical, it will be possible to use digital signage not just to keep all stores up to date but also to respond quickly to changes in the marketplace. For example, integrated systems in the store could vary pricing after the lunchtime rush hour based on how many salads are left over.

Domino's Pizza in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is experimenting with digital displays that present order status to customers who come in to pick up their food. Chief information officer Chris McGlouthlin is also investigating the use of GPS technology for the delivery staff. But for now, he says, stores will continue to rely on paper maps printed using Microsoft's MapPoint software.

The mobile Web has perhaps the greatest potential to disrupt traditional fast food restaurant business models. While Domino's and some restaurants already offer Web-based ordering with local pickup, the mobile Web takes that a step further. "Whatever you have on your hip, you'll be using it to order and pay for your food," says I3 Consulting's Bigari.

In the future, it may be possible to order and pay with your wireless handheld or Web-enabled cell phone, and restaurants may use location-based services to estimate your travel time and make sure your food is hot when you arrive, says Bigari.

Technology innovations may have another impact as well. With automated payment and ordering systems inside the restaurant, at the drive-through and over the Web, "you could literally bury a kitchen" in orders, he says. The fundamental design of restaurants will need to change. But that, says Bigari, is a good problem to have.

What happens at Fatz?

Fatz Café, a chain of 35 restaurants based in Taylors, South Carolina, has tested wireless technology from ESP Systems in an effort to improve customer service and turn tables over faster.

The system includes a wireless hub at each table that monitors table status (available, occupied, ready for using, etc.) and alerts staffers. It also lets customers call their server at any time - "before they get frustrated," says chief executive Steve Bruce.

But the system is designed to help ensure that diners never need to press the call button. It communicates with a base unit at the host station as well as with servers and staffers, who wear small wireless devices about the size of a watch. Servers are notified when a customer has been seated and when food or drinks are ready to serve. Bruce says that tables turn over 10 percent faster in the two pilot restaurants and that customer experience has improved.

Bruce also experimented with a wireless payment system from VeriFone that responds to customer fears of identity theft. It allows customers to swipe credit or debit cards and pay their bills at the table without letting the cards out of their sight. The device also saves the server two trips to the table, Bruce says.