Tonight’s menu special: tablets

Napkin? Check. Knife, fork and spoon? Check. Salt and pepper? Check. Tablet. Wait, tablet?  Yes, check.

Whether it’s a Ziosk or an iPad, this much is for sure: the hottest trend at casual dining restaurants is the high-tech tablet computer on the table.

“It’s an opportunity for enhanced service. This device is almost like a third server. A guest can reorder drinks, desserts and pay for checks. Guests won’t have to wait for a server to pay."

— Krista Gibson, Chili’s senior vice president of brand strategy

You’ll find them at many Chili’s restaurants, which are using Ziosk tablets to enhance service and provide guests with entertainment. Diners can scroll, tap and order menu items, and they can use a selection of apps and play trivia games while they wait for their meals to arrive.

Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides, a food and health trends forecasting company, says that having tablets in restaurants shouldn’t be a surprise.

“Technology in the food industry is still in the infancy stage,” she says, “so it’s just the start of the natural evolution and quiet infiltration of technology into restaurants.”

Chili’s began testing tablets a year ago and is starting to roll them out across the country, says Krista Gibson, the company’s senior vice president of brand strategy. “We had a great experience with them, and they will be completely rolled out by the end of 2014.”

“Technology seems like the smartest thing to do to stay relevant,” she said. “We’re in the process of re-imaging our restaurants, and having current tech seemed like the right thing for our image.”

Applebee’s and Buffalo Wild Wings are also using tablets, and Badaracco is confident other chain restaurants will soon follow suit.

“The biggest driving force is money,” she said. “It’s going to be the national chains that will drive it.”

While most chains say the tablets are on the table to enhance the dining experience and not to replace the menu, not all of them want or are ready to go high tech.

The Cheesecake Factory, for one, is resistant, though food trends expert and Supermarket Guru Phil Lempert says the delay could be due to the chain’s extensive menu. “There’s no question that the Cheesecake menu is more complicated,” he said, “so the development time that it takes to put their whole [digital menu] together could be why.” The Cheesecake Factory declined to comment.

Badaracco questions the effect tablets will have on service and hospitality.

“I think the potential is that it will make the experience more impersonal,” she said. “Although it will provide convenience, at the same time it will cause a disconnect because you will cut out a part of the middleman experience.”

She said tablets might make some guests uncomfortable, too. “Until it becomes the standard, it runs the risk of making the consumer feel intimidated and awkward.”

But there are potential benefits, she added. “It will speed the delivery of food and make it more convenient, so that you don’t have to wait for servers.”

Lempert said the tablets’ popularity among different age groups will determine their success. “Not everyone will catch on,” he said. “It depends on how acculturated individuals are; it won’t be for everyone.”

But Gibson says tablets are a positive addition to the dining experience.

“It’s an opportunity for enhanced service,” she said. “This device is almost like a third server. A guest can reorder drinks, desserts and pay for checks. Guests won’t have to wait for a server to pay. Additionally, there’s content like games and USA Today.”

She said Chili’s plans to retain all its servers; cutting back on employees is not the goal.

“The servers still approach guests, take reorders and accept payment,” she said. “We really see it as another way of taking care of the guests.”

Lempert said tablets are providing a foundation for what’s next in restaurant tech.

“The next evolution will be that we’ll use our own iPhones, iPads and Droids to accomplish this same thing, because people trust their own devices more. What’s happening now is only the intermediate step to that.”