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.