Ordering in the Digital Age

In the mid-90s, at a café in a posh department store in Tokyo, I recall the server pulling out an electronic device about the size of a one-pound bag of coffee on which he entered my order. Despite its bulky size and relatively primitive technology, I was wowed by what I perceived as Japanese efficiency, and I was surprised the rest of the world hadn’t adopted such tools for their restaurants. Nearly 15 years later, we’re all entrenched in the digital age. With slimmer, lighter mobile devices becoming our primary connection to the world, it’s no surprise that airlines, hotels, and even public schools have implemented the use of portable electronic equipment.

According to hospitality consultants, restaurants seem to have taken to the use of iPads the fastest. Upscale eateries, cafes, and burger joints have introduced them to customers as menus. Six Au Bon Pain locations already use the pad, with more of the chain’s 220 locations slated to use them soon. Ed Frechette, Au Bon Pain’s vice president of marketing, says it simplifies the ordering process. Meanwhile, the Chicago Sun-Times reports that steakhouse Chicago Cut has rolled out wine menus in the form of iPads. With 40 tablets at $700 each, this investment is not cheap, say restaurant consultants. But Chicago Cut partner David Flom says he’s already seen a 20 percent increase in wine sales per customer, and while he knows the iPad hasn’t commanded 100 percent of sales, he acknowledges it’s contributed greatly to the boost in revenue.

In this Taipei Times article, Adam Kidron, managing partner at New York-based burger joint 4Food, says ordering food electronically will ultimately become the norm.  As part of its mystery shopping services, Coyle’s restaurant secret shoppers evaluate the speed, timing and accuracy of orders, all of which stand to benefit from these devices because they can provide  information more quickly to consumers.

Electronic tablets provide pictures and more information about selections, and more importantly, they’re easier to navigate than traditional menus. Given the online capabilities, restaurateurs are also finding that tablets can be utilized for surveys and promotional offers much more easily, which gives owners better insight into customer preferences. Patrick Eldon, CEO of orderTalk, Inc., says iPads don’t just streamline orders, they allow restaurants to get to know their guests in a way servers can’t.

It’s too soon to assess if iPads and similar devices are more cost-effective than paper menus, but with success stories already reported, it seems inevitable that restaurateurs will succumb to the tech onslaught. Traditionalists and more tactile consumers will likely prefer paper menus, but with the simplification in ordering and order-taking that  tablets offer, it probably won’t be long before we are all handed one instead of a 12-page wine list.

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