Victoria Gastropub in Maryland has received enthusiastic customer feedback for its Micros mymenu portal.
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Would You Like an App With Your Apps?

Amy Traverso - January/February 2012

A flood of smartphone and tablet technology promises to make dining more efficient and profitable.

When Jonathan Kaplan, the creator of the Flip camcorder, announced a new business venture last June at the ninth annual D: All Things Digital conference, the tech world held its breath. What would it be? A new camera? Surely a device of some sort…

But no. It was grilled cheese. Or rather, it was a new fast-casual restaurant concept dreamed up by Kaplan and funded by the elite Silicon Valley venture firm Sequoia Capital. It’s called The Melt, and its premise is to marry cutting-edge mobile technology (in the form of smartphone apps) with a state-of-the-art kitchen that uses induction and microwave energy to make a perfect grilled cheese in less than a minute. Using this technology, customers can order and pay for a sandwich on a smartphone, then head to a Melt franchise, scan a bar code from the phone, and have a fresh sandwich in minutes.

Some called Kaplan’s announcement brilliant. Others called it overblown. But his unveiling came at a critical moment for the restaurant industry, when a flood of new customer-oriented technologies is promising to change dining out as we know it.

Every month brings a new round of mobile payment systems, iPad wine list apps, and self-ordering systems. And they’re all competing for market share. “Right now the industry is really focused on this tabletop technology,” says Eric Giandelone, director of foodservice research for Mintel, a market research firm. “I think the technology and general trend will last, but it’s hard to know which of the companies will be the ones that make it.”

All of them promise to not only improve your bottom line, but address common operation challenges, from getting customers to their tables to making it easier for them to pay. Here’s a brief tour of some of the most compelling solutions.

Problem 1: Getting a table
Your customers are lined up at the door, and the hostess is juggling reservations and walk-ins, scanning for free tables while tied to her station.

What if she could step away from the stand to greet people, then circle the room, all while managing the reservations system? That’s the solution OpenTable is offering with new tablet-based technology for Windows and iPad (the latter is slated for release in late 2011). While this technology is not aimed specifically at customers, it does promise to make that first impression a little friendlier.

More interesting is a Boston-based start-up called Textaurant that promises a better way to manage wait lists using Web-based technology. Instead of carrying fixed-range buzzers, customers will simply log their phone numbers and wander freely until they receive a text announcing that a table is nearly ready. And rather than asking the host for status updates, they can track their progress on the phone, even get a projected seating time based on the restaurant’s turnover history.

Problem 2: Presenting the menu and taking orders
Any good chef can write an enticing menu, but what about pushing higher margin items? And how is any customer supposed to navigate a 500 bottle wine list? Finally, how do you get those orders into the kitchen when the front of the house is in the weeds? The answer: technology!

The wine list problem is a favorite. Tech companies and app shops like Ideavation and Incentient produce customized tablet apps that allow customers to choose a bottle according to price point, flavor, or even menu pairings. Some larger restaurants are developing their own virtual lists—most famously, Charlie Palmer’s family of restaurants, which has invested an estimated $500,000 over the past 10 years to develop eWinebook, its wireless electronic wine list presented on tablet PCs at a handful of its choicest spots, listing, for example, the 50,000 bottle inventory at Aureole Las Vegas.

Industry giant Micros is also in on the game, offering a whole menu of tablet and smartphone-based plug-ins for its POS system. Want a custom wine list? An iPad menu that allows a customer to order, then share the news with Twitter followers? They’ve got that, too. “We’re also seeing a lot of activity in online ordering and mobile payments,” says Tim Pincelli, director of products and training. Another add-on, Micros’s mymenu portal turns the full menu into an interactive iPad experience. “Guests love it,” says Jason Gotcher, bar manager at Victoria Gastropub in Columbia, Maryland. “Everyone is excited about using an iPad.”

There’s also E la Carte, a Palo Alto, California, start-up with a proprietary tablet that allows customers to view the menu, place orders, and even play games while waiting for food. “We don’t use iPads because they tend to get stolen and are very expensive,” says CEO Rajat Suri. In fact, Suri says E la Carte’s main problem is producing its own tablets quickly enough to service the “hundreds” of restaurants on the wait list (perhaps Textaurant can help). Companies like ETab and TableTop Media are also offering full-service menu technology.

Problem 3: Paying the tab
How many times has this happened: A server takes the order and delivers the food, but disappears at check time. ETab, E la Carte, and TableTop Media all allow customers to swipe their own credit cards. Tabbedout, an Austin, Texas–based company, seeks to take tablets and credit cards out of the equation entirely. Once customers download the app on their phones, they can open virtual tabs at participating restaurants and then pay via a secure server. To sync the phone’s activity with the POS system, the server just enters a unique code for that tab.

Ned Elliott, chef/owner of Austin’s Foreign & Domestic, says that Tabbedout is a good option for his 42 seat farm-to-table bistro. “We’re so small,” he says. “I couldn’t see spending money on tablet menus.” Elliott estimates that 10 to 15 percent of customers pay their bills this way. “It makes our job a little easier,” he says. “The one wonderful thing from the service standpoint is that the minimum base tip you can do is 15 percent.”

Ah, but whither the server? With all this automation, what about good old-fashioned face time? For now, high-end restaurants are unlikely to automate too much of the dining experience. But 10 years from now? “Fine dining restaurants have always differentiated themselves with service,” says Giandelone. “If the customer is doing all the work, what are the implications for tipping? What are the implications for paying your staff if you’re an owner? These are things that will get worked out as we go through it.”