Touch Tablet Technology in the Kitchen and Dining Room

iPads and tablets are taking restaurants by storm and improving efficiencies

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A customer sits down to a table at a restaurant, scrolls through a menu, keys in an order, pages the server and pays at the end of the meal. This could very well be the service model of the future if more operators jump on the touchscreen tablet technology bandwagon.

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It is hard to deny the growing interest in tablet technology in today's foodservice industry. Savvy operators will turn the trendy technology into a management tool that allows them to better understand which menu items are moving, enhance and monitor guest experiences, how to better deploy labor and more.

While tablet readers first gained momentum in the nightlife and bar industry, this tableside ordering technology has since moved into the foodservice realm. Technology companies report successes particularly among the casual dining sector and see potential in the college and university segment.

According to Technomic, wine lists and menus are available on in-store iPads and other tablet readers are poised to continue to gain popularity, both among operators and their customers. "Tablet computers are pretty new on the scene, but they are quickly making inroads among consumers; it seems certain that daily users will be well above the current 6 percent in the near future," according to a social media consumer market brief published this year. "Front-of-house and back-of-house technology and social media are evolving so fast that rewards and risks are high—but the biggest risk of all is failure to innovate," a release from Technomic said.

And, while many fine dining and higher end restaurants are not necessarily using the tablets for direct table ordering, they use them as digital wine and food menus. Chicago Cut Steakhouse in Chicago uses iPads for wine menus, complete with full background information and images about the varietals, vintners and vineyards. At Jose Garces' Jaleo at the trendy Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas, servers carry iPads for both wine and cocktail menus. Other operators use proprietary tablets created by the tablet software company.

Tableside Control

Some self-service tabletop devices, such as the ones produced by eTab, feature a web-enabled, interactive touch screen computer, which integrates with the restaurant's legacy POS system. The restaurant's food and bar menus are pulled through eTab's proxy server located on site and sent over the secure eTab wireless network to the SST, creating an electronic, interactive menu. The system's proxy can connect to an off-site server, which provides for data analytics, menu updates, program changes and more.

Customers can use the tablets to scroll through menu items that come with photos and detailed descriptions of how the dishes are prepared, including information about allergens and other food sensitivities like gluten.

The tablets give customers "total control of the menu and ordering," says Terry Bader, vice president of marketing and strategy for eTab. A digital interface wirelessly connects each table to the wait staffs' handheld devices and existing POS systems. This allows the diners to pace their own meal, and it saves servers the extra step of keying in their written down orders at POS stations, Bader says. Instead, the orders entered in at the table go directly to the kitchen, alerting the servers of the transaction.

Servers are equipped with another handheld device that notifies them when an order has been placed. The server's device also includes a running clock that displays the status of each table, such as when and how long ago orders were placed, if a table needs assistance, or if a customer has paid. In addition, a paging function allows customers to signal their server. Customers can also swipe their credit card to pay or even split bills multiple ways. All of this information feeds into labor use, customer service issues and more and allows the restaurant's staff to better deploy resources.

Back-of-the-House Technology

For example, these systems allow for back-of-the-house management that can track sales, including the popularity (or not) of new menu items, specials and other promotions. This helps gauge menu development and regulate purchasing, Bader says. In addition, new menu items, menu item changes, specials and promotions can be instantly uploaded to the system through a web-based server without the cost of printing new menus.

In systems such as eTab, management can decide to push communication at any time and in any frequency the restaurant desires. For example, at noon, the daily lunch special is the first thing that appears on the tablet's screen. At 4:00 p.m., "Happy Hour" is displayed with the reduced prices in effect. At 5:00 p.m., the dinner menu and drink specials are displayed and ordered with a simple click. This automated programming can be delivered across all locations in a chain, select locations or even a single unit. Afterward, the success (measured in sales dollars) of these programs and promotions can be measured.

Some systems feature integrated hardware and software. DeNorma's Smart Electronic Menu is one such example. These systems allow diners to search through menus and place orders, change orders mid-meal and pay, all at the table. They also manage back-of-the-house functions. Managers can login online to remotely manage the operation from outside the building's walls. The tablet software offers live-streaming from in-store security cameras, and it will also sound alarms in the case of fires or carbon monoxide leaks. The software can also be hooked up to equipment to monitor any failures or problems. At the bar, beverage managers can track pours and liquor inventory.

Obsolete Servers

A common question regarding tablets is if they will make servers obsolete? What's the point of a trained server if a guest can order, signal for something and pay all at the table? In fact, Bader said, service has improved and tips have gone up in initial reports.

"People get what they want, when they want it," Bader says. "This makes them happier because they can talk to the server when needed and the server will leave them alone the rest of the time."

Restaurants have fast turnover when it comes to servers; that's nothing new. The tablet system may not make great servers better, Bader says, but it can help make poor servers better. Tablets that make customers more self-sufficient also cuts down on the need for extra server training (e.g., if the customer can signal when they want the server, no need to train the server to detect nuances or other behavioral signals). Managers can also use the system track and measure the performance of each server.

By giving the patron the ability to order at their own pace, orders are placed and delivered quicker, re-orders increase and tables turn faster, Bader says. Initial reports have found revenues have risen by approximately 10 percent per table because of the faster table turns.

At the same time, Bader says, the tablets take time off the logistics of waiting on tables to give servers more time to focus on improving customer service for their guests. "When the guests want to talk to the servers, they can talk to them, or they can be left alone if they wish." Servers initially greet and talk with guests, but can use their judgment to determine whether or not to continue that entertainment throughout the evening.

That said, the tablets also offer an added form of tableside "entertainment," just like LCD screens in college foodservice operations or interactive kiosks at other outlets.

Security Issues

When it comes to using iPads and other tablets as menus, operators and restaurants tend to be remiss about handing those over to guests, Bader says. But many of these tablets come armed with security functions whereby they alert restaurant management if they're removed from the property. They also deactivate upon removal.

And, operators can skip the tableside order and simply allow servers only to carry and control the tablets. Again, tablets can be armed with security functions to protect against server misuse as well.

Reservation Management

Outside of tableside ordering, some operators are using iPads at the host stand to manage reservations and effectively replace their paper book systems. Urbanspoon, recently launched a new, web-based reservation management system to rival OpenTable, but attempt to go an extra step by offering customers a search selection using GPS tracking. Customers can search for open tables immediately in their area as well as come across other published promotions and specials by nearby restaurants. The app is supposed to help restaurants not only fill seats, but also attract new customers, says Conrad Saam, director of marketing at Urbanspoon.

The iPad app, in addition to electronically filling in tables using reservations made online at the restaurant's website in addition to on Urbanspoon and through phone calls, can also allow hosts to switch tables around using the touch-screen technology. Hosts can even visually "move" tables together to create new four- and six-tops or larger tables to accommodate larger parties, says Saam.

The program also allows the operator to note customer preferences or other special needs, such as favorite cocktails or food allergies. It can also track seats and sales by the day, even down to the hour.

Management advisory consultants can use this information when helping restaurants develop new menus or streamline efficiencies. The system helps the restaurant know exactly when their peak and non-peak times are during the week, and can determine guest capacity and averages.

Social Media Management

iPads and other tablets can also be used for social media management. Move over Foursquare, Yelp, OpenTable and other online review sites. There's a new app that combines all the above: LoSo (short for "location-based social media network) is a new application for both Droid and Apple iPhone and iPad systems.

"The core component of our business is that mobile is all about the 'here and now,'" says Rich Rodgers, Founder and CEO of LoSo. That said, the app gives users ones access point — LoSo — to find out what specials, events, and other activities are going on at the restaurants and bars in their area. LoSo uses GPS technology for its interactive map and accesses the Facebook and Twitter pages for more than 800,000 restaurants nationwide. Those subscribing to LoSo specifically can also use the program to push additional information to mobile phones, such as Happy Hour specials and other deals, bands scheduled to play that evening and other information.

The app also connects with Foursquare to collect information on who's "checked in" to the location, and reward those individuals with loyalty points in lieu of traditional swipe cards. Unlike Foursquare, LoSo allows users to keep this check-in information private, using it only to gain loyalty points if desired. Once there, users can post messages or upload photos as well as short videos reviewing or talking about the place, as LoSo accesses YouTube.

LoSo restaurant and foodservice subscribers pay a monthly fee to access an online "dashboard" of sorts with clear-cut tabs for uploading deals and pushing that info to mobile phones, client messaging, loyalty rewards and more. They can also use this interface to immediately post to Facebook and Twitter without opening up several web pages at once. The restaurants themselves can also access YouTube here to post their own video messages. In addition, the dashboard allows operators to collect or upload email addresses and mobile phone numbers for creating more effective marketing campaigns.

Another tech company, Tabletop Media, launched a tableside ordering tablet that has already attracted chains like Chili's, Uno's Chicago Grill and California Pizza Kitchen.

As these tablets become more popular, they could impact the use of POS systems, ticket printers and other similar equipment. The addition of more independent tablet software makers to the marketplace just might drive initial costs down.

In addition, the marketing and sales tracking component of the eTab system has made it particularly intriguing to operators, particularly casual dining chains with multiple units, according to Bader. The use of this system for sales tracking could, therefore, replace the need for other multiple technologies.

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