Food News

Which Wich Ditches Paper Bags for Virtual Employees

Step up to the black dot on the floor to place your order.
Step up to the black dot on the floor to place your order. Lauren Drewes Daniels
Last Friday, Dallas-based Which Wich reopened its flagship downtown location on Main Street after a two-year hiatus.

Walking in, a customer might be a bit taken back by a large-as-life screen on the wall that wakes up when you step close to it. A real person asks if they can help take your order. It's sort of like that scene on Friends when Monica takes her friends to her rich boyfriend's house and they dive behind the sofa when he appears on his TV.

The virtual order taker is founder and CEO Jeff Sinelli's solution to a tight labor market. Sinelli's new YellowLAB Virtual Cashier System keeps cashiers in the clouds. Eventually, these remote workers will be handling orders at several stores at once.

It's actually kind of brilliant, if not timely. The U.S. Labor Department reported on Friday, April 29, that businesses and government employers spent 4.5% more on worker costs in the first quarter compared with the same period a year earlier. "That marked the fastest increase in records dating to 2001, and the gain eclipsed 4.0% annual growth in the fourth quarter," The Wall Street Journal reported.
click to enlarge A streamlined virtual ordering system could solve an ongoing problem of labor shortages. - LAUREN DREWES DANIELS
A streamlined virtual ordering system could solve an ongoing problem of labor shortages.
Lauren Drewes Daniels
With this project, Sinelli uses technology readily available to stretch workers. Sinelli said a traditional store requires six or seven employees; in the YellowLab models, they only need three, plus a couple in the cloud. In Dallas, those employees are at a nearby call center wearing Which Wich branded T-shirts and hats.

"They're virtual cashiers," Sinelli said in the downtown store on Friday. "We have three teams right now. One in San Diego, California, one in South Carolina, and a team in Dallas."

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

This model has several potential benefits. First, it alleviates employees from multitasking between taking orders and building sandwiches (and back and forth). At this new model, there was just one front-of-house employee keeping things tidy and interacting with customers as needed, while the screens took customers' orders and the kitchen staff made sandwiches and salads.

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

Lastly, instead of being totally 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're opening another YellowLab Which Wich in Austin later this month.

The downtown Dallas store also has a revamped menu with more salad options. Plus, they put a free cookie with my order. How nice is that? 
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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.