The growing trend of customer-controlled, electronic tabletop ordering/payment is a natural progression, says Eric Giandelone, dir. of research, Mintel Foodservice. “Advances in restaurants’ use of technology started in the kitchen and have moved to the table – in part because of the pressure to create better margins and in part because putting some functions in customers’ hands can help operators provide better service.” The time is now, he adds, because systems are reliable and the process is comfortable for consumers.
In the fast casual arena, co-owner Paul Motenko says a proprietary iPad system allows his newly-opened restaurant, STACKED: food well built, Torrance, CA, to create a fullservice experience for guests. Paul notes that when they developed the STACKED concept of “American favorites” (hamburgers, pizza, salads, sausages), it had nothing to do with technology. “Our objective was to provide high-quality food with great value, and it turned out the best way to deliver that was through technology.” Guests choose from a multitude of options (toppings, preparation methods, etc.) for which the fast casual format of ordering at a counter wasn’t going to work. “The iPad solved a lot of logistical problems we would have had with all the variables,” explains Paul. “The key is that ordering takes place at the table. People appreciate the ability to customize their food in a comfortable, uninhibited way.” Guests are given printed menus to study the offerings and then place their orders directly using the iPad on each table. Paul says their system isn’t about speed as much as it is about customer control. “Our guests order exactly what they want, when they want it, and pay when and how they want as well.” They can select from different formulas for splitting checks (percentage, consumption, etc.) and add tips; if desired, servers will take orders and process payments – which Paul says doesn’t happen very often because it’s so easy. “Not dealing with ordering and payment, which are mostly administrative functions, lets our staff focus 100% on hospitality and satisfying our guests’ needs.”
For many restaurants, investing the resources to develop a proprietary iPad system isn’t feasible, but vendors such as eTab are making similar systems affordable. Like STACKED’s technology, eTab allows diners to order and pay at the table on small, portable, interactive touchscreens linked to POS systems. Customers can also customize orders, and similarly, eTab’s goal is to enhance the dining experience through technology. To that end, the device will inform servers how much time has elapsed in the order process as well as page them for help. For managers, eTab has a master screen that allows real-time observation of all tables and server performance. “We completely tie the servers to the process,” says Terry Bader, vp of marketing, “which helps them deliver better and more efficient service. Our clients’ average checks and tips are up, and tables are turning quicker.” eTab also has a feature to push out information about specials and promotions, including the option of on-premise marketing with vendor partners. “Our devices put all the graphics, etc. in customers’ hands at the right time. Plus, a table tent can’t give you data about how well a happy hour or special worked.” eTab provides its equipment for free and charges $400 a month as a service fee for maintenance, programming changes, and updates.
Paul believes that these technologies will impact restaurants more but cautions that just putting an iPad on the table isn’t the answer. Eric agrees, “As with anything, customer-facing technology has to fit the core brand, the concept, and the customer; otherwise it becomes a distraction. Soon these systems will no longer be novelties and customer satisfaction will come back to the traditional things that define a good restaurant experience: the quality of the food and the service.”