When Martin Hines takes his 8-year-old daughter for a weekday lunch at the Chili’s Bar & Grill in Timonium, Md., this summer, he’s looking for quick service so he can return to work.
Instead of waiting for an employee to bring his check, he prefers to swipe his credit card on an electronic tablet placed at each table, which also prints his receipt. During the meal, his daughter usually plays games on the tablet for a flat fee of 99 cents — a price Hines is willing to pay to keep her entertained.
During the past few months, Chili’s has installed 45,000 tablets at more than 800 locations across the United States. Though customers are still visited by a human waiter, they can use these devices to order certain items — desserts and drinks, once the waiter has verified their age — as well as to pay checks or play games. The tablets are intended to alleviate the burden on wait-staff by automatically relaying orders to the kitchen, and expediting payment, according to Chili’s.
“It’s convenient to use,” Hines said. So far, he has used only the payment and game functions of the tablet. “Next time, I would maybe [use it] to order.”
Diners such as Hines are still getting comfortable with table-side tablets; while about 80 percent use at least one of their functions, a minority reject them completely. And for Chili’s, training employees to manage a new technology and integrating the software with existing systems are added challenges.
Table-side tablets are proliferating in fast-casual restaurants. In December, Applebee’s announced it would install 100,000 tablets at its restaurants in the United States by the end of 2014. Ziosk, the Dallas-based tech company that builds tablets for Chili’s, is also working on similar devices for Uno’s Pizzeria and Red Robin, among other chains.
“We recognize that although the industry aggregates a phenomenal number of people, [restaurants face] rising food costs, rising labor costs [and] rising health-care costs,” said Ziosk chief executive Austen Mulinder.
Chili’s Timonium location has had the tablets for about three months. Ziosk pockets the fee for games, covering the cost of Chili’s subscription; any extra revenue is split between the two companies.
Manager Eric Halfpap said he thinks his wait staff has been generating more tips since tablets were installed because service has been quicker. Tablet orders are automatically relayed to a screen in the kitchen, which also displays orders that wait staff take and enter into Chili’s traditional point-of-sale system. If customers opt to pay on the tablet, waiters don’t have to process the check.
Waiters “can now help other people out,” with fewer orders to process, Halfpap said. “They could spend that time doing something else — [increase] the amount of time they can spend chatting [with customers], rather than having someone wave you down and say, ‘Here’s the check.’ ”
Even so, Ziosk has so far resisted offering one feature — a call-the-waiter button — out of concern it might overwhelm restaurant staff.
Across all locations with tablets, about 70 percent of customers use them to pay, especially to split checks two or three ways, according to Chili’s.
The tablets have also helped Chili’s collect customer satisfaction data, said chief marketing officer Krista Gibson. When users pay the check, they are prompted to fill out a five- to seven-part questionnaire about food quality and service. Before the tablets, paper receipts directed customers to fill the survey out online, with about a 1 percent response rate. Now, Gibson said, the response rate is closer to 25 percent — on average, about 500 responses per restaurant each week.
Still, tablet installation has been gradual. For its corporate-owned locations, Chili’s has had to train senior operations officers, managers and employees on how to use the tablets before they set them out for public use. For franchise locations, the company has had to integrate the Ziosk software with whatever point-of-sale program the franchisee has in place, which can take longer to set up, Gibson said.
And for some guests, the electronic screen’s constant glare is annoying.
Clarke Zeiler and David Mullen, who stop by Chili’s in Timonium a couple times a month to discuss work, have never used the tablets and do not plan to anytime soon. Mullen said he would rather interact with the person he’s eating with or the waiter.
“I’m trying to go more old school,” Mullen said, adding that he often goes to restaurants to unplug from smartphones and tablets. “I’m pro technology, but sometimes, honestly, it’s making people decline in social skills.”