TAMPA — The wait for the server to arrive at the table. The attempt to get the attention of that server for another drink. And that interminable process of asking for the check, waiting for the server to bring it, waiting for it to be picked up again, run through the register and returned.
What some consider the downside of dining out can be avoided with technology that is starting to get a toehold in the restaurant industry. Surveys suggest (pardon the pun) that diners are hungry for restaurant technology, and now some big chains and even smaller players in the Tampa Bay area are starting to provide it.
“It’s really user-friendly,” Kathleen Thomas said last week after ordering lunch through one of the MenuPad devices provided at Carmel Kitchen in South Tampa. “It makes it really easy, and you’re not having to go, ‘Where’s our server,’ especially when you have a larger party.”
Added Doreen Province, a colleague of Thomas who works with a civilian contractor at MacDill Air Force Base: “Actually, it’s entertaining. You don’t have to be waving anyone down. You just put it in there and push ‘go,’ and they show up with the food.”
The device the two were using is being developed in Tampa by a company owned by Chris Sullivan, a founder of the Outback Steakhouse chain.
“We all saw this happening, the explosive growth of mobile apps and what the consumer is doing with technology,” Sullivan said. “I just thought for the restaurant to stay relevant in the minds of consumers, we had to figure out how to get technology as part of the experience.”
The National Restaurant Association says 46 percent of diners reported in 2013 that they have looked up a restaurant location and directions on a smartphone or tablet. Forty-one percent have viewed menus or made reservations online. Takeout or delivered food was ordered online by 23 percent, and 19 percent said they have looked up nutrition information on a smartphone or tablet.
Holding diners back may be the fact that many restaurants simply don’t provide such information. Those survey numbers jump when diners are asked how likely they would be to use technology if it were offered by restaurants. The restaurant association survey found 67 percent would be likely to look up a location or directions, 63 percent would view menus or make reservations, 52 percent would order takeout or delivery, and 50 percent would look up nutrition information.
“I felt like a lot of people in the industry felt that the consumer is going to want to have more control over their experience,” Sullivan said.
His company, MenuPad, offers restaurants four tiers of service. Table mode is the technology offered at Carmel Kitchen. It can handle the entire serving process, from ordering through payment. The process bypasses the typical point-of-sale terminal that usually stands between customer and kitchen — servers don’t have to input orders at the point-of-sale station, often after waiting in line.
Server mode is similar but is used by wait staff rather than the customer. Kiosk mode is for the fast-casual environment, and pay mode involves the traditional server-guest relationship but allows credit card payments at the table.
Carmel Kitchen is a Sullivan brand, but he’s not keeping the technology in-house. Ciccio Cali and Besito Mexican restaurants have purchased the technology locally, as have Mojitobar and Viceroy in Miami and even the University at Buffalo’s cafe.
Applebee’s, meanwhile, employs the Presto system developed by a California tech company, E la Carte.
Applebee’s guests can order drinks, appetizers and desserts, and pay their tab through the tabletop screens, but servers still take entree orders.
“We’ve taken the approach of a balance in the technology from feedback from the customers,” said Frank McNenney, a manager at Applebee’s on Gandy Boulevard. “They don’t want to eliminate the service; they don’t want to eliminate the personal side of it.”
Chili’s, Red Robin and Olive Garden restaurants are either using, testing or contracting for the Dallas-based Ziosk tabletop systems.
MenuPad chief executive Vic Lafita said he’s not concerned about losing customer-server interaction.
“What we have found in places like this, the people like the ones you see working the restaurant right now, they’re out here a lot more,” he said during a visit last week to Carmel Kitchen. “They’re mingling with the guests more because they’re not having to go back” to the kitchen or the point-of-sale terminal.
Another benefit of the tabletop technology: security.
The head of Ziosk recently told Forbes that 60 percent of all credit fraud in the United States starts in the hands of a server.
Even though three-quarters of restaurants surveyed by the National Restaurant Association said employing technology provides a competitive advantage and another three-quarters said it makes their operation more profitable, “restaurants are really slow on the take-up for technology,” said MenuPad CEO Lafita. “They’re the slowest industry in the country.”
There are still restaurants and diners who prefer the traditional serving experience, “but if you’re in a hurry and time is of the essence, or if you just want to control your meal experience, technology is going to play a part,” Lafita said. “Technology is coming.”