|By Karen Robinson-Jacobs, The Dallas Morning News
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 29, 2005 - Restaurant coaster pagers -- those clunky hunks of plastic that flash, vibrate and/or beep when your table is ready -- are getting some new bells and whistles.
After changing the technology little since the mid-1990s, makers are now hawking souped-up models that can do everything from tell time to play electronic games.
And some firms are trying to expand their use beyond restaurant lobbies to stores, health care facilities and other places where patrons cool their heels.
"For years ... the only thing there was in the industry was a coaster pager with lights," said Lisa Roberts, chief financial officer of North Carolina-based EPD Inc., which this year began selling a pager called the InfoCube with games, famous quotes and other information.
"There has not been any technology like this in the industry. This was a niche that needed to be filled."
Other firms are scrambling to fill that niche, which means stepped-up competition for early innovator Long Range Systems Inc. of Dallas.
"Things are happening with that real estate -- that's for sure," said Long Range co-founder Ken Lovegreen. "Everybody is jockeying just to be a little bit different than the other guy."
Long Range received a patent for the first stackable coaster pager in 1995; it plans to launch its next-generation creation next year.
The original pager was welcomed by the growing casual-dining industry -- which includes chains such as Chili's Grill & Bar and Red Lobster -- because it eliminated the cacophony of hostesses shouting out patron names over a loudspeaker.
And because the signal could reach a quarter-mile or more, patrons were happy to get a much longer tether.
It's difficult to measure how much the market has grown since.
Statistics on pager sales and use are hard to come by because the industry is relatively new and many of its players are privately held. Who's at the table?
But the largest maker, JTech Communications of Boca Raton, Fla., put its overall sales at $20 million in 2004 and estimates that 750,000 of its pagers are in use nationwide.
The wireless communications company didn't break out pager sales.
Long Range has seen sales grow from $5.8 million in 2003 to about $10 million this year and estimates that 350,000 of its pagers are in use.
The third major player, NTN Communications Inc. of Carlsbad, Calif., said sales for the wireless unit of its NTN Hospitality Technologies division were $5.3 million in 2004.
It didn't break out pager sales or disclose how many of its pagers are in use.
Smaller firms are now angling for a slice of the pie.
Privately held EPD said it has sold about a dozen systems since the InfoCube rollout in April but none to major chains.
Arkansas-based Ad Intelligence hopes to interest the industry in its new pagers, which feature full-color LCD screens and allow for wireless broadcast capabilities such as streaming sports scores, news and trivia.
Industry experts said competition from small players is adding to the slew of products.
But they also point to decreased costs from advances in telecommunications and the restaurant industry's desire to address consumer annoyance with wait times. Dinner call
Also on the market are new systems that enable restaurateurs to call a patron's cellphone when it's time to dine.
Such systems have been available since 2000, but industry experts expect them to become more popular as cellphone use soars.
Long Range is among the companies offering rectangular "paddle" pagers, which have room for a small, printed ad that can promote a restaurant's products or be sold to outside advertisers.
Companies are also trotting out new coaster shapes -- including tire- and pill-shaped coasters -- to lure retailers and health care operators.
This year, Long Range introduced an alphanumeric pager with encrypted messages that can be read only by the intended recipient.
It's hoping to sell those to privacy-conscious health care organizations.
"The biggest challenge we have is to diversify our coaster line to produce other products," Mr. Lovegreen said.
Mr. Lovegreen, 43, sees innovation picking up but insists he's not worried about missing the boat.
"We have a secret weapon coming in a year," said Mr. Lovegreen, a self-described engineering nerd who met business partner Russell Blink, also 43, when both worked at Texas Instruments Inc. "We'll be very competitive with it."
Neither partner will talk about the invention, guarding every detail with the fervor that KFC guards Col. Sanders' secret recipe.
Mr. Lovegreen said Long Range plans to introduce up to six products this year -- the greatest one-year output in the company's 12-year history. "Next year, there are plans for two or three new ones," he said.
New gadgets this year include a video camera system to improve curbside-to-go operations and a paging system designed for fast-casual restaurants where customers order from a counter and wait for the food to be prepared.
As for his competitors' newfangled pagers, Mr. Blink said some will be undone by their own attractiveness. The case for bland
A big issue for restaurateurs is the cost of replacing pagers that wander away. By "adding games to the pager, there is a very good likelihood that the pager will disappear," said Doug Crisafulli, director of marketing for JTech.
He said restaurant operators have told him, "Don't make the pager attractive in any way, shape or form."
Even without frills, pagers disappear at a rate of about one a month as diners neglect to return them. At some high-traffic locations, it can be five or more.
A typical system at Long Range costs less than $2,000 and includes the charger, transmitter and 20 coasters.
A replacement pager costs $50 each. By comparison, a replacement InfoCube pager can be as much as $80, EPD's Ms. Roberts said.
"It's a very price-driven market," said Mr. Blink. "You can have all the features you want. Many times, it just comes down to price."
And not every consumer wants to be entertained by a piece of plastic.
"Typically when I'm out to dinner, it's a social focus," said Jennifer Mitchell, 31, of Dallas, who was about halfway through a 40-minute wait at P.F. Chang's China Bistro recently.
"You don't want something that draws your attention away from your friend or significant other or whoever you're with." How much longer?
But a restaurant technology expert said one recent advance will help restaurants score more points with consumers.
NTN now offers a pager called "Smart Call" that can keep patrons apprised of their wait times. The pager system is hooked to a table-management system that tracks which tables are in use.
"At the present time, some consumers will chose a restaurant based on the accuracy of the wait times," said Robert Grimes, chairman of Accuvia, a Maryland-based technology consulting firm for the hospitality industry.
"Nothing drives a consumer more crazy than to be told an inaccurate wait time."
Mr. Blink said Long Range recognizes the need to engage consumers while they wait.
"In the future, it's obvious that things will change and become more active," he said. "They're holding the device. You might as well use it for something."
COASTER PAGERS: THE BIG THREE
Headquarters: Boca Raton, Fla.
Ownership: Wholly owned subsidiary of Micros Systems Inc.
Products: Guest Pass, Glowster Plus
Features: Voice alerts, advertising space
--Long Range Systems
Ownership: Co-founders Ken Lovegreen and Russell Blink
Products: Cool Blue coaster, Lobster Call
Features: Vibration and lights, out-of-range notification
--NTN Hospitality Technologies
Headquarters: Carlsbad, Calif.
Ownership: Division of NTN Communications Inc.
Products: Play Call, Smart Call
Features: Game play, wait time tracking
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