Service by iPad – Pros, Cons and Recommendations for Restaurants

Service by iPad – Pros, Cons and Recommendations for Restaurants

Photo by flickr user Adikos.

There is a lot of buzz about De Santos, a restaurant in New York, using iPads to help serve their guests. Several months ago, I experienced “service by iPad” recently at a Canadian chain restaurant which was testing the technology. It was still in test phase, and was mainly used as a menu, not for ordering, but as we used it, my guest and I discussed the possible pros and cons of an iPad waitress.

Pros of iPad Service

iPads are cool. Seriously, who doesn’t love an iPad? For those who haven’t used one before, they’re likely as I was when I first got my iPad, amazed by its almost magical qualities.

Guaranteed upsell offerings. It’s easy to see how you could program the iPad to offer add-ons for your guests’ orders – “cheese and bacon on your burger?”, or “chicken on your salad?”  While service by people is only as consistent as the individual waiter or waitress, an iPad waitress would ensure guest are offered these items.

Ingredient listings and allergy alerts. You could program the iPad with a complete listing of ingredients, have it flag common allergies, and give the guests a sense of ease that they know exactly what they’re eating.

Beverage pairings could be offered automatically. As well as ingredients, each menu item could list beverage pairings – wine, beer, spirits – that pair well with it. This presents a great opportunity to partner with beverage distributors (eg Molson, Vincor) to purchase and program iPads and increase sales of their products.

Decreases human error. It happens to the best servers at times. You forget what someone ordered. If the guest is responsible for placing their own order, you eliminate this concern.

pic from flickr user Sean MacEntee

Decreased labour cost. There may be a potential to reduce the number of servers on during each shift, as some key elements of their role is being done by the iPad. (This is a watch-out though, as service may suffer).

Increased guest feedback. You could have a guest survey right at the table on the iPad, instead of attempting to get guests to call in or log on with the info on their receipt. Feedback would increase exponentially as long as the survey is kept short.

Cons of iPad Service

Decreased table turns. I can imagine guests taking longer to order as they play around with the iPad (we did this during our visit). I also worry about leaving timing of appetizers and entrees in the guests’ hands. Guests don’t know how long items take to cook. This may work for some items, but I imagine guests finishing their apps, then ordering their main entrees, and waiting for 15 minutes or more while they are cooked. Even an additional 5 minutes between table turns can have a significant negative impact on revenue in a busy restaurant.

Not everyone loves technology. I imagine my mother attempting to use an iPad to order and the frustration that would ensue. Restaurants will still need a second, human option for guests who aren’t tech-savvy.

Mistakes in ordering. It’s inevitable. Guest hits wrong button, doesn’t realize it until they get the Chicken Cacciatore instead of the Chicken Parmigiana. Or the guest wants a free refill of pop, but hits the button for a paid beverage, then complains at bill payment time. I think it will be important for someone to confirm the order before it is cooked.

Missed opportunities for sales. While the iPad may be able to offer specific upsells during the order phase, it won’t know when someone has almost finished a drink. A smart server is there with a refill or offer of one before the drink runs dry.

Service may suffer. If restaurateurs begin to lower labour cost in the front of house, touch points will also decrease. It’s possible that servers will not be as perceptive to unhappy guests, or notice when a guest needs something. I’m sure that there could be an “app” for that – a “call server” button on the iPad, but nothing beats proactive service and recovery of problems before the guest has to ask.

Potential decreased gratuity. As guests feel less like they received service and more like they served themselves, they’re likely to tip less. I think that great servers will still find ways to connect and will likely not lose out here, but it’s possible that iPad-staffed restaurants may see turnover as a result of lower tips.

Loss of personal connection. People crave connection. If I had a dime for every time I reviewed guest feedback saying their server or bartender made their evening, well, you know how the saying goes… In today’s economically challenged world, guests want value and experience. Will the iPad provide enough? My thought is it will at first, but the novelty will wear off.

Recommendations for Restaurants

Overall, I think there are some valuable applications for the iPad in restaurants, with a few recommendations:

Ensure that personal service is prevalent. The minimal cost savings of a server’s minimum wage hours may not outweigh the possible issues that result from reducing the amount of service to your guests.

Offer an alternative old-style menu service for tech-averse guests, and guidance for those new to the iPad.

Have a person check the order before it gets cooked.

Educate guests on when to order their entrees in order to meet their dining expectations.

Continuously monitor feedback from guests about how they like the iPad. Spend time engaging with guests, asking them what they think (good advice for any situation).

What do you think? Will iPad service be the new best thing? I’ve heard predictions that 30% of restaurants will be using them within the next 2 years. Is this a good thing? I’d love to hear your comments!