Restaurant News & Reviews

Tech devices changing the game for restaurants

No pen and paper: Saho Ueyama, manager at Shoki Ramen House in Sacramento, holds a NCR Orderman system that she and staff use to take orders.
No pen and paper: Saho Ueyama, manager at Shoki Ramen House in Sacramento, holds a NCR Orderman system that she and staff use to take orders. MCT

From taco stands to sit-down restaurants, technology is changing the way we order, pay and even dine while eating out.

Want to peruse the news or occupy your fidgety kids at the table? There’s a tablet for that. Want to call ahead your order and pay by your phone? There’s an app for that. Want to grab takeout deals at off-times from your favorite restaurant, right from your mobile phone? That’s possible, too.

Partly to increase efficiency and trim costs, restaurateurs have been investing in tech tools for the last decade, altering routines that otherwise were little changed for more than a century.

In some cases, it’s as simple as hand-held devices that let servers tap a customer’s order onto a touchscreen. At Shoki Ramen House in midtown Sacramento, California, staffers tote a slim, brick-shaped ordering device, which does more than zip orders to the kitchen.

“With it, I can tell who is giving discounts and what time (staff) clocked in, which makes it easier to manage,” said Saho Ueyama, manager of Shoki. She said the on-screen display also helps staff keep track of wait times at customers’ tables.

Evolving world

For diners, it’s an evolving world, from making online dinner reservations to paying a check by holding up a smartphone.

“Technology is affecting the whole experience,” said Angie Pappas, spokeswoman for the Sacramento-based California Restaurant Association. “Restaurants are experimenting in different ways, and it’s interesting to see what sparks the inspiration behind it. For many brands, it’s seeing if they can more efficiently run their business. … For customers, it provides more options.”

Among the innovations are tabletop tablets at Chili’s Grill & Bar, the Dallas-based chain, which recently started adding the freestanding Android tablets in its restaurants. Eventually, it expects to have more than 45,000 Ziosk tablets in 823 company-owned stores, the company said.

On each tablet’s 7-inch screen, Chili’s customers can peruse menu items, order desserts and drinks and pay their check. There is free access to news from USA Today and, to keep kids entertained, the tablets offer family-friendly games, which carry a 99-cent fee that’s added to the check.

The tablet’s appeal was repeatedly demonstrated during a recent weekday dinner hour at a Chili’s on Sunrise Boulevard in Fair Oaks. Streams of kids coming in with parents invariably snatched up the tablets before everyone else settled into their seats, the parents seemingly resigned to the fact that a 99-cent game charge was going to accompany dinner.

“I don’t even argue. I know it’s a dollar added on, but if it keeps them quiet and occupied, I’m happy,” said 48-year-old Jennifer Sanchez. “The only problem I have is making them put it down for a few seconds to order their food.”

Grown-ups also logged time on the tablets.

“It’s a nice change from the menu, which you also get anyway,” said Barney Jones, a retiree and Carmichael resident. “It gives you a good look at the food and it saves time reordering drinks. And if you have a question, the waiters come over to answer. I think it’s just a more relaxed way of doing things. You don’t feel hurried.”

Pay at table

When it’s time to pay, the Ziosk tablet acts as a credit-card processor, allowing customers to swipe their card, apply coupons or gift cards, and even split the check. Once the bill is paid, the tablet spits out a paper receipt and customers can leave the restaurant without further consulting their server.

“Saving time has a lot to do with it,” said CRA’s Pappas. “I can see where, at a more family-oriented place, an adult with small children would want to pay the check and make a quick getaway without waiting for the server to come over with the check.”

E la Carte, a Redwood City, California-based company founded in 2008 by a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineers, is rolling out a similar tabletop device for the Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar chain. Its creation is called the Presto tablet, an Android-based, Intel-powered wireless device that enables guests to order food, play games and pay their bill. The company’s goal is to have 100,000 tablets in Applebee’s restaurants this year.

The restaurant tech bandwagon has experienced some bumps along the way, including technical glitches, costs and even some resistance by customers.

Longtime restaurateur Randy Paragary, who has multiple Sacramento restaurant locations, said some customers are taken aback when a server approaches them with a high-tech device. “They feel more comfortable ordering the old-fashioned way,” he said.

Paragary also noted that cost can impact how quickly or how much technology restaurants are willing to adopt. Paragary said his restaurants are not stuffed with all “the latest and greatest technology,” but even commonplace systems don’t come cheap. He said equipping a single restaurant with a standard point-of-sale system with multiple terminals and printers can cost $25,000 or more. Even so, he said, “they’re wonderful and they speed things up.”

Hackers a concern

The biggest concern among restaurateurs using computerized systems is getting hacked, said Paragary. He said it’s crucial that systems meet payment card industry compliance standards to protect the personal information of credit card users.

According to a Wall Street Journal report last week, a recent series of high-profile security breaches at restaurant chains, including some P.F. Chang’s outlets, have prompted a few restaurants and retailers to revert — at least temporarily — to the old-school “knuckle buster” devices that manually imprinted credit card numbers.

Technical problems can also arise. Shoki Ramen House switched to its NCR-developed system in May after experiencing problems with a competitor’s system. Kathy Ueyama, Shoki’s vice president, declined to state exactly how much they’ve spent on new technology. “It was costly, but so far it has been worth it.”

Similarly, at Hot Italian restaurant in midtown Sacramento, co-founder Andrea Lepore said the restaurant is replacing a “costly” tableside ordering system “because the hardware kept breaking.” By October, she said, the restaurant expects to have a new system installed.

As CRA’s Pappas noted, “Sometimes, it’s too much technology and (restaurants) have to have a dedicated (information technology) person on-site.”

Even with the potential drawbacks, restaurant industry experts say there is no stopping the technology surge.

In the next 10 years, tablet-equipped servers will “be as common as salt and pepper” in most brick-and-mortar restaurants, said Los Angeles-based restaurant consultant Bob Newton. “And I’m not just talking about upper-end restaurants,” he said. “This will be happening in fast-food restaurants, too. Within a decade, the dining out experience will be changed forever as more and more restaurants add technology in order to compete.”

But it may not win everyone over.

Henrietta Smith, a 45-year-old secretary dining recently at a McCormick & Schmick’s restaurant, said she prefers the personal attention that goes with good service.

“I like it when (the server) tells me about the specials and any inside information. I like the wine-pouring tradition,” said the Roseville, California, resident. “I feel like that’s what I’m paying for … not to push a few buttons on a computer.”