What's next: Tablet technology replacing print menus

July 4, 2011 | by Alicia Kelso

Peppered throughout the recent National Restaurant Association Show floor in Chicago were exhibitors showcasing a fledgling concept that is anticipated to make a huge splash for both restaurant operators and consumers. Tabletop tablet ordering, spawned from the launch of the iPad in the spring of 2010, will potentially render print menus obsolete, raise ticket values, reduce restaurant order errors, expedite service, add marketing potential and increase customer satisfaction.

"This is the future," said Terry Bader, vice president of marketing and strategy for St. Louis-based eTab, which launched its proprietary touchscreen tablet in 2010. ETab was one of a handful of companies at the NRA Show showcasing its tabletop tablet ordering devices, in addition to E La Carte, Titbit Incorporated, Grand Cru Technologies, Apptic Corp. and others.

While wall-mounted kiosk screens have been trickling into the quick-service and fast casual spaces, touch menus are ending up on casual and fine dining tables throughout the country.

Although relatively new, these platforms cover many bases – from ordering to marketing to payment. For example, eTab's device ties into the POS and is PCI compliant, so customers not only order from the tablet at their table, they can also swipe their credit cards through the top of the hardware. They can then either have a receipt printed at the restaurant, or have it emailed.

The technology also has the ability to communicate directly to the wait and kitchen staff, which ensures order accuracy and faster service.

"By looping the waiter, the bar, the kitchen into a table's order, they are more attentive with what's going on – they then get the food and drinks out faster," Bader said. "Also, whereas it normally takes about 10 minutes to check out at the end of a meal, this takes the process down to less than a minute because guests can just swipe their card when they're ready, or page their waiter if they want to pay in cash."

Such expediency is expected to be a boon for the bottom line. Not only do restaurants that use this technology save money from printing menus every time there is a new promotion or price change, they also use it to upsell specific items through marketing components.

"Messages are totally customizable, so an operator can include something on the menu about pairing a meal with a certain kind of beer, for example. Or, you can send a message 20 minutes into the meal asking the customer if they're ready for another drink, and they'll realize they are. Recommendations like these tend to boost sales," Bader said, estimating an 8 percent to 10 percent increase per ticket.

Rajat Suri, founder/CEO of E la Carte, echoes that assessment. "This boosts average check size through upselling, mouthwatering pictures and through impulse orders. These can quickly add up for higher checks, about 10 percent, which is a lot for a typical casual dining restaurant – potentially $300,000 a year," he said.

Tips have gone up as well. "Guests got what they wanted when they wanted it. That is going to do a lot for guest satisfaction," Bader said.

Benefits go beyond the bill

As restaurants reap financial benefits from these devices, they'll also be able to mine more data. ETab, for example, includes time-lapsed data that shows how long certain tables have been waiting, so staff is able to prioritize orders.

Apptic Corp.'s Crave It platform includes order analysis that provides restaurants with statistical information on every order. The technology also remembers previous order preferences for future, personalized marketing messages, and provides quick, end-of-meal survey options for guests to tap through.

"The reporting possibilities with this are huge. Restaurants can track what is working, what is selling and they can change or add it right away," Bader said.

Suri added that operators can take such information to launch local coupons, as well as to seek out local advertising opportunities. For example, a restaurant that sells a local craft beer can potentially advertise that product on the bottom of the touchscreen menu when a specific promotion is running.

Operators can change their menus to coincide with dayparts, price changes, or to introduce LTOs and other promotions. All of this information can be updated in real-time.

Some systems, such as Titbit Incorported's, also include calorie ratings, recipes and videos. E la Carte offers games, such as trivia, to distract customers while they wait for their food, and includes small promotions – such as $1 off a bill – for those at the table who win. All of these components, Suri said, help with customer retention.

"This is not only profitable for restaurants, it is convenient, fun and social for guests. They're getting information about their food and playing games and learning about the area," he said. "This isn't meant to replace human interaction, it complements existing wait staff."

Cost, durability and technology intimidation concerns

Justifying the cost might be hard with the initial sticker shock of any new technology. To get an idea of what an operator might spend on such an addition, eTab provides its equipment for free and charges a monthly service fee of $400 for maintenance, programming changes and updates.

Another concern is the durability of the system, particularly in an atmosphere that may include aggressive drunks or unruly children.

"The stand is made from polycarbonate, an extremely durable plastic that can withstand dropping, scratching, moisture, cold, hot, etc. The screen and printed circuit boards on our device are protected by a trampolining design that suspends both of these components via a rubber mounting to absorb shock in case of dropping," Bader said. It also includes rubber gaskets to seal areas from moisture.

For guests intimidated by touchscreen technology, waiters are on hand to order or submit payments for them. Pages can be sent directly to waiters and, in some cases, even managers, for those who are unsatisfied or confused.

And, for operators who are trigger shy about the cost: "Technology costs are coming down fast. Plus, think about how much you're saving from print costs and adding from the upselling aspects," Bader said. "Americans are now used to touchscreen technology. They'll be expecting to see this eventually."

Too good to be true? Not for one operator.

Perhaps the collective benefits sound too good to be true, but Adrian Glass, owner of The Post, a sports bar and grill in St. Louis, said these tablet menus are "the next revolution in the restaurant industry." His restaurant was a beta site for eTab's test and has had the system in place since January.

"It has been a win-win-win so far. It saves 30 percent of our waitresses' time so they can spend more time answering questions, bringing out food and engaging in human interaction. For customers, they're getting more used to it, and they're getting their drinks faster," he said. "For us, it speeds up orders – drink orders especially. Our average checks have been much higher. I'd be surprised if they weren't higher than 10 percent, even."

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability , Customer Service / Experience , Marketing / Branding / Promotion , Menu Boards , Online / Mobile / Social , Operations Management , PCI Compliance , Software , Staffing & Training , Systems / Technology , Trends / Statistics

Alicia Kelso / Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.
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