Secondary Uses for Digital Surveillance Technology Grow

Security, asset protection still main draw, but operators find other profitable aspects of having cameras

Part 1 of a two-part series: "Video surveillance in restaurants: Who's using what technology and why"

A desire to keep a tighter rein over day-to-day problems in the front- and back-of-the-house--not all of which are security related--isdriving operators to adopt digital video surveillance technology that is light years ahead of the VCR-based sentries of the past.

Some restaurateurs, like airport feeder Hartsfield Hospitality of Atlanta, are using video surveillance to monitor food and cash handling procedures, employee conduct and more. That firm operates one Freshens Smoothie Co. unit and one Le Petit Bistro store at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, as well as four Freshens units and one Le Petit Bistro unit at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta.

Other operators using video recording, analysis, reviewing and reporting technology also augment the basic security and employee-theft prevention roles of their systems by using them to verify workers' compensation and guest incident claims. Service providers say such users include operators of IHOP and Steak n Shake restaurants and a number of Subway and McDonald's franchisees with multiple locations.

"With this [video] system, I can see basically everything that's going on, from how food is being prepared, to how customers are handled, to whether employees are wearing their uniforms," Esau Sims of Hartsfield Hospitality said. "In fact, we've seen a big improvement in service efficiencies from using the system at Le Petit Bistro, where customers wait on line to pay for their food, because the recordings [revealed] that employees weren't calling the next [patrons] to the register fast enough when finished with the previous guest."

However, Sims, who is Hartsfield Hospitality's director of operations, indicated that his company's desire to improve its financial position was what prompted it to use technology by Coppell, Texas-based Digital Witness.

He had suspected that monitoring food preparation in the stores would bring expenditures "more in line with what they should be." Sims also had a hunch that putting a surveillance finger on the pulse of cash handling and customer service would benefit the bottom line. His suspicions proved correct, and Hartsfield has shaved about 2.5 percent off its annual food expenditures and increased profits by about $100,000 since the system was deployed in February 2006.

The Digital Witness system consists of cameras placed in strategicareas around a restaurant, including near the front door, prep areas, cash registers and the back door. The cameras continuously record images on a digital video recorder, or DVR, and upload them to a password-protected Digital Witness website that operators can access from any computer. Sims logs in to the site daily to view images in real time, as well as to look at images that have been indexed by the system and are stored on Digital Witness' host computer.

Based on dashboards created for each operator, the cameras also generate and e-mail to management exception reports detailing any anomalies they have detected. In Hartsfield Hospitality's case, such anomalies include instances in which employees are obviously deviating from prescribed food portioning guidelines and discarding or misappropriating ingredients. The system also has been programmed to let Sims and his colleagues know when an employee has made a cash-handling error, such as leaving a cash drawer open or failing to provide a receipt with a purchase.

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