CHICAGO – The bar is buzzing on a busy night at Chicago Cut steakhouse as regulars Keith and Peg Bragg sit at a high table scanning the wine list.
Within seconds, they have all bottles under $40 at their fingertips using an iPad supplied by their server.
"You can very quickly look through to see the price per bottle," said Keith, a finance executive, as he scrolled through rows of selections. "You can read the wine tasting note, how long it has been aged."
The upscale eatery on the northern bank of the Chicago River has invested in 40 iPads at about $700 each for wine selection. Since April, when Apple debuted the tablet, the device is now in use as a full menu at upscale restaurants, hamburger eateries and quick-service chains like Au Bon Pain. Restaurateurs said that's just the beginning.
Chicago Cut partnered with a technology firm to create a custom app that looks like a virtual wine cellar. It lists the restaurant's more than 750 wines, includes photos of bottles on wooden shelves and allows for searches based on variety, price or region of origin. Diners can also access information about a wine's taste, composition and a Google map of the vineyard.
"Eventually the bottle is going to spin around and you can read the back label," said Chicago Cut managing partner Matt Moore. In the future, programmers could add video or let customers e-mail themselves the name of a new favorite wine.
Moore's partner, David Flom, said the iPads were a large investment, but they're already showing returns.
"I've already seen an increase of wine per customer of 20 percent," Flom said. "I can't say that the iPad commanded 100 percent, but I can say it commanded a significant portion of that."
Technology is becoming increasingly important to restaurants and tabletop ordering devices only stand to multiply, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at the Chicago-based restaurant consulting firm Technomic.
"It's cool and trendy and kids love it," he said. "It paves the way for other opportunities with applications."
Au Bon Pain uses iPads at six of its 220 locations, with plans to expand. Ed Frechette, the company's vice president of marketing in Boston, said diners usually fill out pieces of paper with their orders at the cafes, but iPads have simplified the process.
"One of our employees has an iPad with a menu loaded in it and they'll take your order," Frechette said. "You still see a menu board with all the information on it. We have handheld laminated menus for a reference, but all the paper pads are gone."
At 4Food in New York, where diners can build and name their own burgers, iPads are at eight kiosks with plans for as many as 30 devices, including Android and Blackberry platforms. Customers order and enter credit card information into the iPad to pay. Managing partner Adam Kidron said ordering food electronically will eventually be the norm.
"You've just got to imagine that this is something that won't just be considered to be a discretionary behavior," Kidron said. "It will be a necessary behavior."
Chief executive Patrick Eldon, whose orderTALK Inc. helps set up online ordering for restaurants, said the real value of using iPads is to develop customer relationships. Digital surveys, collecting customer e-mails and offering frequent diner programs are all possible with the tablets, he said.
"It's about getting to know your customer in a way that you can't get to know them from the waiter or waitress," Eldon said. "You now have incredibly valuable data about customers, how often they eat, what a particular customer likes to order."
The tablets are arriving on the travel circuit, too. OTG Management has installed more than 200 iPads loaded with menus at gates in New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, allowing travelers to order salads and sandwiches while they wait for flights. A waiter brings the food and diners can pay via the iPad or in cash to the server.
"I think eventually a significant number of restaurants will just use iPads for their menus," said OTG chief executive officer Rick Blatstein. "We're starting out using hundreds of them and I expect it to be thousands in the future."
Celebrity Cruises has 75 iPads loaded with restaurant menus aboard one of its ships.
Restaurants do face a few challenges. Tristano points out that restaurant owners must consider how to keep the tablets juiced up. At Chicago Cut, Flom said the iPads are loaded with tracking software to prevent theft. And there are customers who won't want to use iPads.
Jay Clark, who headed the team at Shared Marketing Services Inc. that created Chicago Cut's iPad program, said while he sees unlimited uses for the digital devices in restaurants, paper menus need to be available, too.
"If people are very tactile and they're comfortable with a paper menu, they should be able to have it," he said. "People have to be comfortable with technology."