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Table Talk

Table Talk

Food writers discuss pros, cons of tablets at the table. Are they an asset to your business or a nuisance for customers?

What happens when two food-obsessed writers—with completely different outlooks—get together to discuss all things culinary? We wanted to know too, which is why we launched Table Talk.

David Salvi, a headstrong millennial with simple tastes and a quirky sense of humor, squares up against M. Jane Johnson, a savvy baby boomer with a sophisticated palate, to discuss food, drink and tech trends in this spirited new column.

This month, they home in on the phenomena of tablets at restaurant tables from companies like Buzztime, Presto and Ziosk (Plus, a new mobile drink ordering system called Overflow). Applebee’s, Buffalo Wild Wings and Chili’s lead the trend with all their locations using tabletop tablets that allow customers to order food and pay their bills without servers. They’ve been quite successful with the devices, say reports, with wait times for food shorter and server tips averaging on the higher end.

While some operators find the tablets an asset to their businesses, Salvi and Johnson weigh the pros and cons from their points of view. Here’s what they had to say.

Dave Salvi: Technology is going to push in whatever way fits the proclivities of a generation. What's funny is I was caught in the middle of a boom in tech innovation. Smartphones, tablets, smaller computers, on the go. Part of me loves the idea. Part of me hates it. It's a strange paradox.

Jane Johnson: They look a little clunky, kind of like play toys. People are accustomed to sleek iPads, and that's not what they're handed in restaurants.

DS: Usually it's clunky, slow and bizarre tablets with unfamiliar software. I am used to iOS or Android software. And the early versions of tabletop tablets were foreign to that.

MJJ: But I have to say, when grocery stores first rolled out self-service checkouts, I loathed them. But then it was like, yay, I don't have to talk to a cashier and I can bag stuff my way. Now I'm irritated that I must interface with someone at checkout. I think the same will happen with tablets. Inch by inch, customers will adapt and adopt.

DS: I personally like when people bag for me...because I usually screw it up. Like any technology, adapting and adopting also comes with a bit of compromise. Meaning, people find the best balance in order not to completely ruin the experience.

At the table, I like to talk to servers. You want to hear about the food. You just don't want to ask them for the bill or wait for them to get it as they service other tables.

MJJ: For restaurants, it is situational. I am not expecting to go to Publican and place my order via tablet, but if I happened to be at Red Robin, I might like the efficiency. There's accuracy and control that you don't always get with a server.

DS: Right, but there's a warmth and care that matters. At the end of it all, we're breaking bread around the proverbial campfire. We're "in it together," so to speak, which is a very millennial (groan) attitude.

MJJ: They can also be faster, assuming the kitchen can process the orders. How many times have you sat like an orphan waiting for someone to take an order?

MJJ: Some meals away from home are feeding, some are meals. Different expectations for both. It's also kinda cool to be able to ask via tablet for refills on water or something. That assumes if someone actually responds.

DS: You have to know who you are as a restaurant and what your client base expects. “The Terminator” will come out of the kitchen and fire a hose at you!

MJJ: There's less pressure when ordering wine from a tablet, and I think that helps spike sales.

DS: Right. There's a degree of anonymity that makes you feel comfortable. Like ordering weird stuff from Amazon.

MJJ: For menu items, I don't feel pressure ordering food, but I do occasionally find myself irritable about a less than great server. If I can bury myself in a tablet and save the agony, bring it on.

I don't want to say that tablets are for chains more than indies, but there may be some truth to that.

DS: Again, it's (all about) managing expectations. If I know I'm going to a chain, then I expect the chain experience. Kiosks are for fast casual and fast food. Tablets are for casual dining. And that's the appropriate environment.      

DS: If I see a kiosk at a restaurant, regardless of expectations coming in, I immediately think, "Okay, this better be fast." Otherwise, what was the point of streamlining the ordering like that?

MJJ: Dining for me really is social, and that includes interacting with servers, bussers and my tablemates. For the most part, tablets are a barrier to that.

DS: I think that's where balance comes back. How will a tablet streamline the experience? Would I prefer it always there for paying my tab? Yes, that makes life easier on everyone. Servers can worry about serving tables. Not running credit cards or returning change.

MJJ: Depends on the server. I kind of appreciate when they make a big deal about how the tablet is all about enhancing the experience, that it's a tool to make things better rather than a replacement for a living, breathing person.

DS: If the resto is staffed appropriately, yes. To your point, it can't replace a living, breathing human.

MJJ: I went to an Indian resto in California that had tablets. The detail on each menu item was helpful. But at a table for six, ordering via tablet had all the makings of a disaster. A server would have been a godsend in this situation, faster and on-hand to answer questions about a complex menu.

Dave, what do you think about tipping when it's a tablet situation? Six people ordering food on a machine is too much to ask of a table of people out for a good time.

DS: I tend to tip more on a tablet.

MJJ: Even if you have less interface with a person?

DS: There's no rounding off. With presets of 15 percent, 18 percent, 20 percent and 25 percent, I naturally guide my fingertip to the higher numbers.

Since I find the service improved based on the tablet's aide, it correlates and deserves it. Plus, I like being server-friendly. They work their tails off!

MJJ: I can't make that same leap re: tipping. If all the person does is deliver a plate of food I ordered, the whole paradigm kinda shifts. The kitchen then warrants a larger cut, and I'm guessing that is not usually happening.

DS: It's brain games, right?

MJJ: Tips remain dependent on service, and if all someone does is deliver a plate of food, I'm not convinced that's a 25 percent situation. The pay at the table option is useful.

DS: I'm with you. Tablets can also help with data gathering. Surveys, menu metrics perhaps.

MJJ: All this said, I'm perfectly fine if I never sit down to a table at a restaurant and am handed a tablet. Kiosks another story.

MJJ: There's so much data that it's hard to spin it into meaningful info.

DS: A restaurant must determine what is right for them. But yes, much to consider.

MJJ: I'll eat those words the next time a poorly trained, angry and disinterested server approaches the table.

DS: Bring me the kiosk!

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  • Author: Dave Salvi and M. Jane Johnson
  • Posted: December 04, 2018
  • Categories: Business Solutions