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The Melt update: Great logistics--and free bacon!

A field trip to a local Melt restaurant reveals the chain's secret economic sauce and how it guards against denial-of-lunch attacks. Also, a bug is uncovered.

Free(ish) bacon? Sign me up. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

The mobile ordering site went live recently for The Melt's chain of grilled cheese restaurants. The best feature of the app (and The Melt in general): you can add bacon to any sandwich for free. Although since the grilled cheese sandwiches themselves are $5.75, "free" is a bit of a stretch. But still, hey, sort of free bacon!

In the interest of research (and lunch), I checked out the new mobile site and the in-store follow-through at a nearby Melt location. What I found was a bug in the system (presumably a temporary problem), but also an advantage that The Melt has, both for its own operations and its customers, in the way it handles online ordering of food for pick-up.

The bug, simply, was that the mobile site wouldn't let me log in. It's supposed to let you pick what you want to eat, and then give you a QR code on your screen that you scan at a Melt restaurant when you show up. Then your credit card is charged and they start preparing your order.

The Melt CEO Jonathan Kaplan Rafe Needleman/CNET

I tried to do that before I left the office. No joy. Since it wasn't working, I dropped back to the non-mobile Web site on my desktop computer. I ordered my lunch, and got a QR code e-mailed to me. I flashed the e-mail on my iPhone to The Melt's in-store reader, bypassing the line of people waiting to order and pay, and waited for my food. While waiting I saw that Melt CEO and Flip creator Jonathan Kaplan was standing in the back of the restaurant with a marketing guy. I showed him the bug. The marketing guy saw it too, and he scurried off to go yell at someone.

Meanwhile, Kaplan and I talked about how the food ordering experience really should work. There's only so much you can do with a mobile Web site, we agreed. The upcoming Melt mobile app will know where you are, and will have the option of tracking you as you approach the store. As you do, it will send you an alert, asking if you want the store to start making your sandwich before you step in the door. "The goal is to get the wait time from three minutes down to one." I should note that I had to wait more than three minutes using the standard pre-order method, so he's still got some tweaking to do on the system.

Nonetheless, The Melt's ordering technology is better than other convenience restaurants. Unlike other chains (I've poked around in Chipotle's and Speciality's), The Melt doesn't start making your food until you tag in with the QR code in the store, or tell the store to get to work using the upcoming mobile app. Since The Melt's food prep technology and workflow is fast, simple, and streamlined (let's call this place the Flip Camera of convenience foods), this actually yields fast-enough service, and with the bonus of giving customers hot, just-prepared food. If you place a to-go order with another system, the food is hopefully waiting for you when you arrive, but for all you know it may have been sitting there for a while, getting cold or soggy.

Scanner on the countertop of The Melt. Rafe Needleman/CNET

But the really big advantage is that since The Melt doesn't start cooking until you show up, it doesn't incur any expense until then, either. This means that The Melt doesn't have to make the hard choice of either charging users when an order is placed, leaving them angry if they never arrive and their credit card is debited anyway; or charging them only when the food is picked up, leaving the store open to denial-of-lunch attacks and the expense of preparing food that must then be discarded.

Melt's food prep speed gives it operational flexibility. It's an interesting tactical advantage that the chain has compared to competing restaurants. I'm left wondering what other businesses could be doing with their processes to engineer in this type of flexibility, and what it might do for them.

Or, failing that, how they can find their own versions of free bacon.