When searching for the right computer system, customizing an off-the-shelf product runs rings around starting from scratch and looking for the promised land

For years I wanted everything in my company done perfectly. I believed that was the path to excellence. I was wrong. Perfection has nothing to do with excellence. Indeed, the two concepts may be mutually exclusive. Those truths were finally driven home to me in my long search for the right computer system.

My restaurant and catering company does a substantial volume of future-order business. Customers often call a day or so ahead to order a birthday cake or a sandwich platter for a sales meeting. Until last November we processed orders manually. A customer would call, and someone would write down the order on a slip of paper and file it in the "future" file. The system frequently failed, killing our bottom line and aggravating our customers.

I had known for years that we needed a computerized point-of-sale (POS) system to automate order processing. Of course, nothing but the perfect system would do. I suffered from "terminal uniqueness" -- the delusion that my organization is completely unlike any other and that the solutions for it must be totally different from anyone else's. I insisted on software that could do everything I wanted, when I wanted, where I wanted.

Surprise! I couldn't find it. Sure, I found several great restaurant POS systems, but they balked at the prospect of a future order. Then I tested a few catering programs with solid features for taking future orders, but they were slow as the dickens for taking the simple "ham and cheese on rye to go." Nowhere could I find a package that would enable my staff to take orders quickly, schedule a catering job, and cost out a ham-and-cheese sandwich. So I settled for nothing.

Knowing I couldn't buy the perfect program, I decided to hire a programmer to write the perfect program. I chose the local software house that had sold me our accounting software and then modified it. "Hey," I thought, "they could build the POS system and tie it to our general ledger. What a plus! What a savings!"

What a mistake. From October 1991 through January 1994, we muddled through development hell. The software company had no POS-system experience and no food-service experience. Its lead programmer didn't even visit our facility until six months into the coding. By then the (wrong) foundation had been laid. We spent the next couple of years -- and nearly $70,000 -- trying to clean up the mess. One day the software-company president dropped by and said that if he knew at the start what he knew now, the firm could have done a much better job. Of course, if I would be willing to pay to start over, the company would give it another shot.

I finally realized that in my search for perfection, I had been ignoring readily available, viable solutions. I needed something that worked. Excellent would be good enough for me.

I went back to square one and dusted off my original request for proposal (written in 1988), made a few updates, and prepared for the National Restaurant Association convention in Chicago. More than 100 vendors were offering POS systems or related services. I narrowed those vendors down to 10 and then to 3. One vendor at the bottom of my original list of 10 kept pestering me. Although Simply Products, in Kukletown, Penn., had a fine product, I wasn't sure it would work for us. The company promised to modify its system to fit our needs. Given my experience with my local software house, I was skeptical. But once the company made a few changes and did some demos, my interest grew.

Together we developed a system for my company. Is it perfect? Of course not. Have we had problems? You bet. Hardware crashes, software glitches, even a couple of lost orders. But for the most part the system gets the job done beautifully. Now I can enter a call-in order for a "beef martini" -- one of our specialty sandwiches -- and then respond to a caller who wants a catered lunch for 50.

Perfection is seductive because it hints at the promised land: it's more about the ideal than the real. Now that I have stopped searching for perfection and have started looking for solutions, my life is much saner, and my customers and staff are much happier.

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Jeffrey Mount (72750.3164@compu serv.com) is president of Wright's Gourmet House, a $2.1-million restaurant and catering business in Tampa.