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The Evolution of Table Service: Tabletop Tablets Making Their Way to Franchises

When I dined out recently at a restaurant franchise I noticed something different about my experience – there was a server, but there wasn’t a paper menu.


Have you noticed the trend? Tabletop tablets have been popping up in a number of food franchise locations. It’s happening at a number of casual dining chains, including: Chili’s Grill & Bar, Applebee’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill, Buffalo Wild Wings, IHOP, Panera Bread, Red Robin, and Uno Chicago Grill. A number of airport eateries have also adopted the practice, and Johnny Rockets is also jumping into the mix of restaurants with tabletop tablets after a brief test period.


Top tablet providers include Ziosk, E la Carte, iMenu, MenuPad, and Tabbedout. The tablets have a wide range of functions, including gaming and social media capability, not just menu display. Some can even be equipped to handle tabs remotely, in case someone would like to buy a friend a round of drinks but can’t be present in the same location for example. Here is a sample product rundown of a tablet from Ziosk:

- 7 inch, multicolor LED screen (Android platform)
- Wi-Fi enabled
- Encrypted card reader
- 22-hour battery life
- Built-in camera
- Optional built-in printer (if the customer would like a paper copy of his/her receipt instead of email)


Couple Using Tablet at Cafe


What are some positives of the move to tablets for customers? One is enhanced order accuracy. With patrons inputting their own orders, they can communicate directly with the cooks without an intermediary that could accidentally forget specifics of their order. Also, the convenience of being able to order, or pay, when ready instead of waiting for a server to return is also cited as a positive of the new system. In addition, some franchises like Panera are using the systems to allow customers to order via an app before they get to the restaurant and pick up their order in an express line, saving them time during a busy day.


Another positive for customers is increased payment security. Credit card skimming, the act of running a credit card through a device specifically set up to record the information on the magnetic strip, is a concern of many consumers. With the tabletop tablets, some customers will gain more peace of mind knowing they can pay directly instead of handing their credit card to someone they usually don’t know.


The advantages for the restaurant franchises are also numerous. First, it allows them to turn over tables quicker, which is a major factor in restaurant profitability. Over a three month period, Johnny Rockets reported an 11.2% improvement in its table turn times. Chili’s found in its tests that the tablets consistently increase the size of the average check.


Another reason tabletop tablets can be good for restaurant franchises is the tablets become an instant feedback loop.


With the ability to track what customers are searching, and, in some cases directly inputting as their order, franchises get to see what on the menu is popular in real-time and could make adjustments more easily. It’s a much better system than comment cards or surveys. In many cases with those methods the customer is given an incentive to participate. Those incentives can lead to skewed data. With the tablets, the restaurant is getting organic data without interrupting the customer’s meal. Plus, people already use their smartphones at the table. Why not have them use a tablet that helps them as franchises in their quest to become more efficient in their service offerings?


But despite the advantages, some are lamenting the potential loss of human interaction. As a Chili’s patron in New Jersey remarked about the use of tabletop tablets, “It’s fine. I just think there’s still something about having personal service.”


Waitress Taking Orders

However, Austen Mulinder, the president and CEO of Ziosk disagrees. Mulinder believes servers are integral to the dining experience and cannot be phased out. “Restaurant-ready tablets can actually help servers do a better job juggling their customers' needs,” he said in a guest post for FSR Magazine. “They help ensure that servers can spend more quality time with their tables, providing guests a higher level of attention and service.”


Furthermore, there are certain transactions that can only be handled by a human server such as greeting, and the verification of ID for alcoholic beverage purchases. In addition, Mulinder contends that while some may think that ordering would faster with the tablet, parties of 4 or more might be more conveniently served by a human server. He also believes human servers would do better than the tablets with complex entrée orders as well.


Next time you’re out eating at a restaurant franchise with tabletop tablets measure how you feel about them. Do you think they enhance the dining experience?
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