TGI Friday's has been a long-established US brand of chain restaurants. In 2007, the UK counterpart, owned by Whitbread, was bought back by parent company Carlson and became its representative this side of the Atlantic.
Originally with 45 locations, TGI Friday's expects to have over 60 restaurants open by the end of 2013, and with the growing numbers, there becomes a growing pressure to get operations running as smoothly as possible.
Jeremy Dunderdale took on the role of head of IT at TGI Friday's when the new company formed and realised some changes needed to be made due to an aging infrastructure that had not been given the care attention needed for a booming business.
“We inherited an old network which had had under-investment for a good 18 months or two years beforehand,” says Dunderdale.
Existing system 'in a mess'
Although wireless was in place, Dunderdale claims it had been left in quite a mess.
“We ended up with three models of access points [APs] in the business,” he says. “Maintaining the different models of APs made it difficult to troubleshoot, as we would get different problems with each model.
We were very reliant on one person [who] wasn’t even in the business to keep things running
Jeremy Dunderdale, head of IT, TGI Friday's
“We were very reliant on one person [who] wasn’t even in the business – it was a support partner – to keep things running,” says Dunderdale.
TGI Friday's uses the wireless network for payments, enabling customers to pay by credit or debit card from their table and get the receipts printed there and then, rather than any return to the EPOS system.
However, during the World Cup in 2010, performance of that network was bad and Dunderdale realised something had to be done.
Learning the lessons of the past
“I think that Leicester Square during the World Cup really taught us the lesson,” he says. “[Performance was bad] and it was a case of was it the network? Was it the wireless? We pulled people in from all over [to] do wireless surveys.
“There was congestion and we had to fix the channel, but that made me realise I needed to sort it out once and for all. Either I stay with the existing company but I upgrade it all to the same platform or I go wider.”
After a slow response from the existing supplier and a costing that saw access points double the price of competitors, TGI Friday's chose Aruba Networks to roll out new wireless infrastructure.
Each store has a minimum of three AP-105s, with some having as many as eight to give full coverage. Overall, there are 300 deployed with the number set to grow as more stores come online.
In the datacentre, the company runs an Aruba Airwave server to manage the devices and enable centralised reporting on AP activity.
“The great thing is having a central controller, rather than a controller in each individual store,” says Dunderdale. “I can either sign into each virtual controller or I can sign into the central one and see any clients which are down, the number of devices connected, what my usage is, everything I need.”
The transactions in restaurants are made secure through the use of Aruba’s RAPIDS technology, which enable each access point to become an intrusion detection system for the wireless network, keeping TGI Friday's up with PCI compliance.
Read about about Wi-Fi networks
“I have got RAPIDS running so I can see how many people have tried to connect to our network,” says Dunderdale. “I have more than 2,000 attacks, or attempts, but when you look at the number of guests in our restaurants, you are going to have that, especially with iPhones constantly trying to connect to any wireless. Or trying to find it even if it’s hidden.
“However, with RAPIDS, I am managing that so that where I used to have 2,000 plus rogues, I now have six. In fact, when I looked this morning, I only had four rogues because I knew what the other two were.”
Deployment began in late 2011 and was completed by the beginning of 2012 – although as more stores open, more installations have to occur.
“We are talking a matter of months to roll out,” he says.
A risky debut
The first trial was in a new store – a risky move for both TGI Friday's and Aruba, but one that paid off.
“We had this new store coming online and it was a case of guys, I need the new wireless in this store by this date, so this is your pilot,” says Dunderdale. “It was a risk as a new store wants to make a good impression, but that is your opportunity. Do you really want to put old infrastructure in?
“It is always a debate in a business, not just with IT but anything – even down to a menu change. It is always a case of 'what impact could it have on the guest?'”
However, the trial was a success and Dunderdale’s team with Aruba soon moved out to more stores.
“We surveyed a number of sites that we knew had some anomalies," he says. "Places like Leicester Square or Glasgow, which is sited in an old bank with real thick walls. On top of that, we surveyed a couple of our standard layouts.
“Based on that, we allocated three APs per store and went back to troubleshoot, rather than do a survey of each store. That helped save a lot of money.”
Is guest wireless now becoming a business critical application because guests won’t come to you if you don’t have it? I think we are getting close to that?
Currently Dunderdale is running a number of virtual LANs (VLANs) across the infrastructure, giving a number of SSIDs [service set IDs] for separate functions. However, a number are yet to be utilised.
“I have configured it into four VLANs,” he says. “I have a business VLAN, a payment VLAN, a configured but not active guest and ordering VLANs. That is the set up and I have one spare.”
Is wireless business critical?
A number of rival food chains have all embraced Wi-Fi for their guests, so why has TGI Friday’s not gone down that route yet?
“Some people put it in to try and attract guests but we are [already] a busy restaurant,” says Dunderdale.
The company thought of a number of options for it, such as just running Wi-Fi during the day or over lunchtime, and even trialled it back in 2010 across two stores in Birmingham and Leeds, but, at the time, the IT team did not see it as a priority.
“Staff probably used it more than guests back in 2010,” he said.
He admitted things have changed now, with the proliferation of mobile devices and many more customers wanting to access Wi-Fi everywhere they go. However, but it was still a case of priorities.
“Putting guest wireless in seems easy compared with some of these other things, but then it becomes guest wireless versus business critical applications,” says Dunderdale. “What should we focus on?
“Is guest wireless now becoming a business critical application because guests won’t come to you if you don’t have it? We are getting close to that.”
The other future idea is to look at equipping staff with mobile devices for ordering.
“We used to have handhelds, [but] the maintenance contract cost £150,000 a year,” he says. “That was just the contract and the cost of repairs on top was a similar figure. We couldn’t survive as a business if we kept going at those costs, so you need to have something going that is robust.
“Handhelds like a Motorola MC70 are just too small, though the iPad Mini would probably work if you could get the right case for it. iPad Minis could have the same layout as the till and that would work.”