Restaurant chain Applebee's will install 100,000 tablets at tables and bars at more than 1,800 of its U.S. restaurants over the next year, demonstrating new possibilities for an interactive dining experience. The tablets may also eventually be used at IHOP restaurants, which are owned by the same company, DineEquity.
The tablets, which have been beta tested in selected Applebee's restaurants over the past two years, currently enable guests to pay at their table, add additional menu items to their order and play games. But the company says it soon expects to add more functions such as video streaming, music, social media interaction, and gift card food specials. The tablets, called Presto, are produced by venture-backed startup E la Carte.
"Starting out, our goal was to create a way for guests to control when and how they pay their check. What we learned after nearly two years of testing is we can provide much more. The Presto tablet will deliver our guests a robust slate of offerings for not only transactions, but entertainment, social interaction and more, moving forward," notes Applebee's president Mike Archer in a company statement. The company's executives could not be reached for direct comment.
In the pilot, the tablets were found to reduce transaction times for guests and improve the dining experience by simplifying the transaction process and allowing diners to better control meal timing, according to Applebee's. Wait staff could also focus on better service and more attention to guest needs rather than delivering a check, the company says.
The tablets also feature a credit card reader, as well as wireless technology which should enable them to incorporate features in the future such as a mobile wallet and mobile phone interaction.
"When done right, tablet based experiences in high-volume, high traffic restaurants should be a win-win," for customers and owners, says David Hewitt, global mobile practice lead at Sapient Nitro, which has consulted to companies such as Dunkin' Donuts and McDonalds on interactive instore applications.
Not only can customers avoid a long wait to get served, order and pay, but vendors have greater cross-sales opportunities. "Folks may not realize that asking 'would you like fries with that?' really works. But having to remind staff to ask those questions is a big compliance issue. When you get a machine to do it, it doesn't get tired of doing that," notes Hewitt.
Hewitt expressed surprise, however, at the look of the tablets chosen by Applebee's. "It looks like a clunky kiosk machine rather than an elegant, high fidelity experience. Why not chose an iPad mini, which is a strong brand that people are familiar with?" he says.
Other potential apps for the tableside tablets include those already adopted by Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, in which users can scan a QR code from prepaid gift cards that allow them to make small purchases automatically.
Chris Dancy, an IT specialist named by Wired magazine as "one of the most connected humans on earth" due to his penchant for using electronic tracking gadgets, has other visions for the future of the tablets. One killer app for him would be if the tablet could connect to fitbit, the wireless wrist device that tracks users calorie intake and expenditures.
"It could show me things I can eat based on my activities for the day," he notes. There could also be sensors built into the tablet that regulate things such as ambient lighting and noise, he notes. "There are a lot of things a tablet can pick up beyond showing you a menu," he says.
Of course, more sophisticated applications based on user preference require customers to log-in and have their behavior tracked, which not all may greet with enthusiasm. Hewitt believes that when the pain point is large enough - such as a long wait in a high-traffic restaurant - people will generally prefer to use the tablet.
"The app needs to be tailored to different segments," he says. Tech zealots and those who visit an outlet frequently - perhaps 10 percent of customers - can be offered such personalization, but it shouldn't be required. "For the others, if you can walk up, look at an item and say ‘I want that' and touch it and have it brought to your table, that's amazing."
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Mary Lisbeth D'Amico is a freelance writer based in Jersey City who frequently covers digital marketing, social media, tech startups, and venture capital. She has contributed to a wide range of publications including The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Red Herring, and Real Deals. Find her on Twitter at @mldamico.
March 19, 2014