Who is ditching paper bags for virtual employees

Last Friday, Dallas-based Which Wich reopened its flagship downtown location on Main Street after a two-year hiatus.

Upon entering, a customer may be a little startled by a life-size screen on the wall that wakes up when you approach it. A real person asks if they can help take your order. It’s kinda like that scene on Friends when Monica takes her friends to her rich boyfriend’s house and they duck behind the couch when he appears on her TV.

The Virtual Order Taker is Founder and CEO Jeff Sinelli’s solution to a tight job market. Sinelli’s new YellowLAB virtual cashier system keeps cashiers in the clouds. Eventually, these remote workers will process orders in multiple stores at once.

It’s actually quite brilliant, if not timely. The US Department of Labor reported Friday, April 29 that businesses and public employers spent 4.5% more on labor costs in the first quarter compared to the same period a year earlier. “This marked the fastest increase on records dating back to 2001, and the gain eclipsed fourth quarter annual growth of 4.0%,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

Click to enlarge

A streamlined virtual ordering system could solve a persistent labor shortage problem.

Lauren Drewes Daniels

With this project, Sinelli uses readily available technology to stretch workers. Sinelli said a traditional store requires six or seven employees; in the YellowLab models, they only need three, plus a few in the cloud. In Dallas, these employees are at a nearby call center wearing Which Wich-branded t-shirts and hats.

“They’re virtual cashiers,” Sinelli said Friday at the downtown store. “We have three teams right now. One in San Diego, California, one in South Carolina and one team in Dallas.”

So instead of using a Sharpie to score a brown paper bag for orders, which are zipped down the line at traditional Which Wich locations, there are two kiosks with screens for placing orders. Sandwiches and salads are prepared at the back of the store in a kitchen, then picked up at the counter.

This model has several potential advantages. First, it relieves employees of multitasking between taking orders and building sandwiches (and back and forth). In this new model, there was only one front-of-house employee who kept things tidy and interacted with customers as needed, while screens took orders from customers and front-of-house staff kitchen prepared sandwiches and salads.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of having order takers in the cloud is that eventually, if one store is slow and another is busy, virtual kiosks allow for a natural shift in workforce.

Finally, instead of being completely digital – say, a kiosk where a person doesn’t appear but provides a platform for customers to order and pay – which Wich maintains personal interactions with customers, which Sinelli prefers .

They are opening another YellowLab Which Wich in Austin later this month.

The downtown Dallas store also offers a revamped menu with more salad options. Also they put a free cookie with my order. How nice is it?

Ethel J. Montes