Tablets at tabletop

Last week I went to lunch at UNO’s with a few co-workers. None of us had been in awhile, and we all immediately noticed the new touchscreen on the tabletop. The hostess explained that this device, called a Ziosk, would allow us to order drinks, appetizers and desserts, and pay our bill. It has a few free apps, and access to games for a dollar. We saw a family at the next table take advantage of this feature – crayons and coloring menus are so over.

Ziosk at UNO's

Customers can buy access to apps, order drinks, and pay their bills.

My own dining companions hoped that the server had wiped down the touchscreen (flu season, you know), but also observed that we take the same risk by opening a menu. So, moving on: I noticed that drinks were ordered more quickly via Ziosk, but not necessarily delivered any faster.

Other chain restaurants like Applebee’s, Chili’s, TGI Friday’s, P.F. Chang’s, and Chevy’s FreshMex are also using or testing tabletop mobile devices. From the restaurant’s perspective, benefits include more ways to upsell and feature relevant menu items, faster table turns, increased guest satisfaction, and an opportunity to gather data about consumers who join loyalty programs. From the guest view, devices like the Ziosk and the e-Tab offer convenience and entertainment. Win-win?

Maybe. Some parents dislike seeing their kids glued to a screen during mealtimes, and have pointed out that a single screen is less than ideal with more than one child at the table. It’s just one more thing to squabble over. Other fast-casual restaurant patrons are sighing about yet another technological distraction that keeps us from having an actual conversation.

Touchscreen devices seem to be appropriate for fast-casual restaurants, where the emphasis is often on novelty as well as convenience. Will they replace personal service? Probably not. Wayne Vandewater, VP of learning and development for Applebee’s, told the Wall Street Journal, “Food is easy to copy, a building is easy to copy.” And, judging from the proliferation of tabletop touchscreens, so is technology.

Vandewater notes, however, “…it’s not easy to copy our people.” Even as fast-casual chains invest in high-tech solutions, they are re-training servers in the art of “situational selling” and table reading. Consumer research from twenty years ago is valid today: food service employees are still the most important marketing touchpoint.

Have you used a touchscreen at your restaurant table? Tell us about it in the comments.

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8 thoughts on “Tablets at tabletop

  1. I like your observation that while the drinks were ordered easier and faster, they didn’t arrive any faster than normal. For me, this underscores the primary problem with companies deploying technology – they focus on the process, not the outcome.

    I think for technology to be more fully integrated, it must add value, not just bells and whistles. It sounds like the company has made the first step, but must better understand how that technology can add value for the customer.

    • We were discussing the implementation of some new, automated workflows in the graphics department the other day, and we could tell that some of the graphic artists were uncomfortable with the idea that some of their tasks would be done by the workflow server instead of at desktop, by a person. One manager had a good observation, which was that machines should do “the dumb stuff” – the tedious, repetitive tasks – so we can be freed up to do the smart stuff, where creative thinking, intuition, and experience are important. This is where they add the most value.

      Using the Ziosk for the dumb stuff – paying bills, signing people up for a loyalty program, and keeping customers (and their children) occupied during long waits – makes sense to me. Ordering food and drink via machine is less appealing.

  2. Hi Karen,

    I had an experience similar to this at a PJ Whelihan’s. We were given a piece of paper with a QR code on it. We could use this code to order a refill of our drinks, call the waiter/waitress to our table or pay our bill. I thought it was an interesting concept, but I did not feel comfortable plugging in my credit card information. I have a feeling I am not the only one with this fear. How do you think restaurants can overcome this issue?

    I am headed to UNO’s this week and have not been in a while. I am hoping they will have a Ziosk at my location so I can try it out!

    -Nicole

    • Nicole, that’s an interesting use of a QR code, but I’d be afraid that the paper would get lost, fall behind the booth and so on! I wonder what they do for security – can someone else scan your code and start ordering drinks for themselves? hmm.

      I think as people become more comfortable with online and mobile payments, this will become less of an issue. Would a closed system like the Ziosk make you more comfortable, do you think?

  3. I have recently seen these touchscreens at mainly chain restaurants as well. They are absolutely an interesting concept, but I have to wonder is the restaurant experience one we really want to take the “human” experience out of? What if you have a question on the menu? It becomes too hard to actually get a question answered when the waitress/waiter is expecting their table to just place their order through the touchscreen. And, then there is the problem with having only one screen. Maybe the screen is good for ordering, but maybe customers should still be provided traditional menus to make their choices. I also have to wonder, do these touchscreens make the waitress more lazy? It seems to me they are doing less work once these are involved, but do they still expect the same tip? These are all questions that this emerging media concept will eventually need to address.

    • Ashley, I just read this in an article about QR codes and restaurants (poking around in response to Nicole’s comment above):

      “It is sub-optimal to have to speak to a live person, who is juggling multiple roles in a restaurant, dealing with customers face-to-face and handling several ringing phone lines.”

      Obviously, this is a person who is ok with removing the human experience from restaurant ordering!

      Full article here: http://mashable.com/2012/03/08/qr-codes-restaurants/

  4. I like the idea of using tablets to order at a restaurant. I think with a tablet there is less likelihood that your order will come out wrong. That is actually one of the reasons I prefer to order online when it comes to carry-out food such as pizza. Who knows what the person on the other end of the phone might hear when you say olives? Who even uses a phone to make calls now anyway? But that’s a different story.

    The first place that I saw tablets being used was a fast-food Asian cafe called Tin Drum Asia Cafe (http://tindrumcafe.com/). There’s an iPad on the counter that you can use to order and there’s also someone standing there if you’d prefer to talk to a human. I think the benefit in having both is that if someone already knows exactly what they want they can go straight to the person at the counter. Those who need to look at the menu can take their time with the iPad.

    As you mention I think tablets work better in a fast-food, seat yourself environment rather than a sit-down, take your order, and wait kind of restaurant. Nothing can replace real human interaction.

  5. I love that they have games on the Ziosk! This is a great idea for people like me that have young children that don’t know how to act in restaurants. I always feel bad for the people sitting around us in a restaurant because the kids are so loud and messy. I think that this could help make sit-down restaurants more kid-friendly, and make it a better dining experience for everyone else who must sit near wild children. Some restaurants put families with kids in a different section than everyone else, and this is okay, but I think that providing games to play is a much better solution.

    My oldest son, who is 4 years old, got a kids Nabi tablet for Christmas and he loves it. There is a lot of educational apps on the tablet and not only games. It is one of the few things that can hold his attention for longer than 5 minutes. Children, especially mine, are not very patient, so anytime I know we are going to have to wait, like at the doctors office or at a restaurant, I bring the tablet along so they may play on it while waiting. It seems like restaurants are catching onto this as well. Using the Ziosk they could both play and they wouldn’t have to fight over it!

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