Smart F&B Platform iCHEF Helps Restaurants Succeed
 
Mar 26, 2020
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Since iCHEF was created eight years ago, the system has helped more than 7,000 restaurants survive in a fast-paced and fickle market by boosting management efficiency and optimizing service. At the same time, their skillful use of social media helps build customer loyalty.

“Taiwan’s 140,000 restaurant owners generate annual sales worth NT$800 billion, but many restaurants are still managed in the same way as they were twenty years ago,” explains iCHEF co-founder Ken Chen.

Formerly the menu strategy director at McDonald’s Greater China Region, Chen is keenly aware of how far behind the digital transformation of the local F&B industry is, particularly among small- and medium-sized businesses. “Most tech companies only want to service large corporations for the profits, leaving the small, poor restaurants behind. Over time, the gap only becomes wider.”

Technology Makes Restaurants More Efficient

You won’t find a conventional POS (point-of-sale) terminal at the counter of the American-style restaurant Eat Enjoy in New Taipei’s Xindian District. Instead, staff use an iPad tablet with the iCHEF POS system, which helped owner Alex Cheng get the restaurant out of the red. When Cheng took over from his mother five years ago, the eatery had been losing money for years. Through iCHEF, Cheng was able to cut costs and run the restaurant more efficiently. Meanwhile he has even opened two more outlets.

Cheng picks up an iPad to demonstrate how iCHEF works. “When using a POS terminal in the past, you needed to ask someone from the manufacturer to change the menu. But iCHEF’s POS-system is very flexible because it allows you to add or delete menu items.” Because of its familiar interface and ease of operation, service personnel can get the hang of the system very quickly. It takes just four hours for total newbies to learn how to order meals and fill orders. Since the system directly links to mobile payment and credit card machines, checkout and payment verification are convenient as well.

“There is also an inventory management feature, which is very convenient,” exclaims Cheng with admiration. With every meal that leaves the kitchen, the system automatically deducts the ingredients from the inventory. Once safety stock levels have been set, the system will automatically remind staff to stock up. By managing foodstuffs in real time, waste of resources can be avoided.

The digital data sheets allow restaurant managers to analyze guest preferences and create new menus that more accurately fit customer tastes. For instance, Cheng found that his customers were particularly fond of seafood dishes, so he created an Italian pasta dish with lobster. Despite a NT$600 price tag, the new addition to the menu sold better than anticipated.

The system’s abundant features are constantly being expanded. Cheng notes that iCHEF is very responsive to customer needs, constantly developing new features and looking for cooperation with business from different fields. For that same reason, iCHEF has adopted a subscription scheme that allows renewal or cancellation every half year. “We keep updating the software to attract new customers and let existing customers regularly scrutinize our effectiveness.”

Differentiation through Service and Social Media Management

But relying on technology alone is not enough to survive and grow. The key for iCHEF to stand out in a crowded market is differentiation through various services and social media features.

Chen found that customers want iCHEF to be not just a software supplier but an F&B all-rounder. In late 2018, iCHEF integrated Line Pay and JKoPay into its POS system, but customers hoped to be spared the red tape and instead have iCHEF open commercial accounts, fill out forms and submit documents on their behalf.

iCHEF operation manager Stephen Kao explains that such startup support comprises a broad spectrum of services, such as applying for electronic invoicing, handling mobile payments on behalf of customers, organizing pest control, recruiting famous bloggers for endorsements, arranging for food photography, and negotiating bank loans. “Many clients don’t have a clue about market pricing; they prefer to have us look for suppliers and take responsibility for assessing quality and negotiating prices. This way the restaurant owners get better conditions and guarantees than they would get if they did it themselves.”

About 70 percent of newly signed-up iCHEF customers are restaurants in the pre-opening phase. When sales personnel visit such businesses to explain the POS system and its operation, the question proprietors most often ask at the end of the presentation is “Do you think we will make money this way?” revealing a significant degree of uncertainty and doubt. This is often the case because the budding restaurateurs have neither a background in gastronomy, nor do they know where to turn for expert advice. Noting the need for consultation, iCHEF developed free training for its users, teaching them about labor regulations, accounting and tax filing as well as online marketing. Last year, some 3,000 users participated in these events.

“We can’t give you a magic bullet, but we can give you some inspiration,” notes Chen. Once a customer in Kaohsiung who ran a bistro was ready to give up, but after attending a training session on online marketing, he adjusted his business strategy, running the bistro successfully ever since.

Chen also observed that restaurant owners are often lone fighters lacking peer support. iCHEF organized a large gathering comparable to a developer conference, but it soon turned out that the attending restaurant owners had little interest in technology issues. When Chen dug deeper, he found that most had registered for the meeting in the hope of meeting other people in the F&B business.

Opening a restaurant is a valuable experience. Through the “restaurant gang,” a social community founded by iCHEF, users can exchange ideas, teach others about their own experiences, and help each other grow professionally.

Through this group, Cheng got to know people who run different types of F&B businesses. The group members provide suggestions and recommend suppliers when someone is looking for kitchen equipment or foodstuffs. “It gives you the feeling that everyone is pulling together,” says Cheng.

Optimizing Life Cycle Management

About 80 percent of iCHEF users keep renewing their subscriptions. The average customer lifespan is between 40 and 50 months. While Chen acknowledges that the lifespan does not appear to be very long, he points out that the F&B sector is highly volatile, as restaurants come and go with rapidly changing customer preferences.

Chen believes that iCHEF is still in the growth phase. The business strategy currently focuses on boosting restaurant numbers and local penetration rates. In Taipei’s East District, in the area between Civic Boulevard, Renai Road, Guangfu South Road and Fuxing South Road, some 40 percent of restaurants use iCHEF. The higher penetration is in an area, the more concentrated F&B outlets are, and the higher the reference value of the gathered data is.

Data analysis can help restaurants improve the quality of their management. Most recently, iCHEF has released an F&B economic cycle bulletin that reflects the downturn in the sector due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. An analysis of F&B business types that fare comparatively well in the current crisis may serve as reference for other restaurant operators.

Yet Chen sounds a word of caution. “Although iCHEF can help restaurants unleash their creativity and increase efficiency, the key to running a good business is still its people.” Still, iCHEF hopes to grow with Taiwan’s F&B industry as it provides more services firmly committed to its users.

Translated by Susanne Ganz
Edited by TC Lin
Uploaded by Sharon Tseng