Touch screens have long been a part of our lives, whether on smartphones, ATMs or self-checkout lanes at grocery stores. But restaurants have been slower to adopt the technology. Only late last fall did McDonald’s announce it would roll out self-service ordering stations at its U.S. locations, and Panera Bread and Wendy’s are in the process of replacing some cashiers with touch-screen kiosks.
Several Washington restaurants are now embracing the technology, including quinoa-bowl purveyor Eatsa and stir-fry specialist Honeygrow, chains that have each opened two storefronts in the past few months. Moxie’s, a local cafe offering all-day breakfast, ice cream sandwiches and other lunchtime fare, also uses kiosks.
So, is this another example of robots stealing jobs from people? Not quite.
“Our system doesn’t reduce labor. It’s a common misconception,” said Tommy Woycik, president and founder of Nextep Systems, which provides restaurants, including Moxie’s, with touch-screen technology. What it does do, he said, is shift the type of labor. Eatsa and Honeygrow employ greeters who not only help customers with kiosks, but are also in charge of wiping them down and keeping the store neat. Many of these restaurants employ software engineers and graphic designers to develop the technology, as well.
And that technology doesn’t come cheap. The cost of installing free-standing kiosks has been cut in half since Woycik started Nextep 12 years ago, but it remains a big investment. The system at Moxie’s, for example, cost $50,000, said owner Marcus Barnett.
For some business owners, it’s worth it. For customers, it means getting used to an increasingly popular way of ordering your lunch. Here’s why you’ll probably be seeing more touch screens at restaurants soon.
Flipping through options on a screen generally is faster than a conversation, especially because kiosks are often visually driven and don’t require much reading. Kiosks almost exclusively rely on credit or debit cards, so that there’s no fumbling with cash.
At Moxie’s, the average transaction takes about 60 seconds, a figure on par with Nextep’s overall data. For repeat customers, transactions can take even less. Justin Rosenberg, founder and chief executive of Honeygrow, is planning to keep track of customer history by phone numbers. That opt-in functionality can shave the average transaction down from 60 to 20 seconds.
When there’s a large number of kiosks — Eatsa’s K Street location has about a dozen — you can increase volume even more, while also keeping prices low and reducing lines. “Our whole goal out of the gate was speed,” said Eatsa co-founder Scott Drummond. “If you can accommodate more customers, you can charge less.”
In addition to increased sales thanks to speed, kiosks improve restaurants’ upsell rate, meaning how often a customer says “yes” to questions like: “Do you want fries with that?”
Upselling is a little trickier with cashiers, who might forget or feel uncomfortable trying to push more food on customers. With kiosks, that isn’t a problem. Customers may also be willing to buy additional food because the privacy of the transaction means no one is judging them, Rosenberg said.
Suggestions can be customized for particular orders, too. Someone who buys a burger might be offered fries, or a person who orders a salad could be offered a yogurt. On average, Woycik said, customers spend 15 to 20 percent more when ordering from a kiosk.
The ability to let customers build their own meals is why touch-screen ordering has been especially popular with fast-casual concepts. A kiosk made particular sense for the stir-fries at Honeygrow, Rosenberg said, because an assembly-line ordering system would create an “incessant bottleneck.” Unlike salads or burritos, where prepped ingredients can be gradually added down a line, stir-fries require the extra step of cooking in a wok. With a kiosk, customers choose everything in advance, which is then relayed to the kitchen.
On the back end, kiosks give restaurants flexibility to change their menus often without having to worry about reprinting menus. They can also spotlight different items at different times of the day, or promote dishes that are selling well or that they would like to sell more of.
Before introducing touch screens in the mid-’90s, Sheetz locations relied on an ordering system of paper tickets and golf pencils, “and you hoped they made it right,” the convenience-store chain’s director of brand strategy, Ryan Sheetz, said. Kiosks “certainly drove our accuracy,” he said. Monitors now show the orders to kitchen staff, which is vastly more efficient than a pile of papers.
Sterling’s new Domoishi restaurant features 63 tableside iPads in its dining room so customers can order exactly what they want when they want it, said its director of marketing and customer service, Mark Kolodziej. The concept is all-you-can-eat Japanese, but instead of visiting a bottomless buffet, diners choose particular items, reducing both food waste and kitchen work. Without the intermediary of a server (hosts and other staff roam the restaurant and assist diners who hail them on the tablets), orders can go directly to the kitchen. Another perk: Customers can pace their meal based on the estimated wait times for dishes.
With the ubiquity of smartphones and online ordering, fewer customers bat an eye at touch screens. But restaurateurs realize they have one shot to get things right before a frustrated diner walks out the door.
That’s why, Woycik said, it’s important for kiosks to guide people through the process — while not being condescending, of course. There may be brief instructions (choose your protein, pick your sauce), along with photos of the food and buttons that serve as prompts to the next screen.
At Honeygrow, Rosenberg had his daughter test their kiosks to make sure anyone could understand them. “That was really kind of my marketing group right there,” he said. “You don’t want people asking a million questions.” She was 4 at the time.
You have several options around Washington for giving the technology a test run. Here’s a sampling.
1701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 1627 K St. NW. eatsa.com.
On the menu: Vegetarian egg or quinoa bowls for breakfast; quinoa bowls and salads for lunch and dinner.
Tips: Choose from a selection of preset bowls (for example, the Spice Market, with corn curry, tandoori tofu and roasted yams, or the Smokehouse Salad, with barbecue mushrooms, grilled corn and cheddar), or build your own.
The hummus and falafel bowl ($6.95) is a filling option that hits a bunch of different satisfying notes: crunchy (pita chips), zesty (harissa), refreshing (tomato-cucumber salad) and salty (olives, feta). Only credit or debit cards are accepted.
716 Seventh St. NW; 1100 S. Hayes St., Arlington. honeygrow.com.
On the menu: Noodle-, rice- or lettuce-cup-based stir-fries; salads; a “honeybar” with fruit, honey and toppings.
Tips: At a kiosk, choose from a selection of suggested offerings or build your own. The noodle stir-fries (starting at $7.45) are like your neighborhood takeout, but better, with chewy noodles, perfectly charred and slightly smoky vegetables and fresh, bright sauces.
1020 19th St. NW. moxiesdc.com.
On the menu: All-day breakfast (burritos, sandwiches, bagels, biscuits); sandwiches; burritos; ice cream sandwiches.
Tips: Order at one of the kiosks, mostly from preset menu items. Breakfast sandwiches and ice cream sandwiches are build-your-own.
Come with a big appetite or a friend, so you can dig into the custom ice cream sandwich (starting at $4.99). Choose two cookies (served slightly warm), one flavor of ice cream and toppings for an over-the-top dessert.