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!



  1. August 25, 2011 at 11:37 am

    Right now people are ordeing subs, salads, etc at Quick Chek and WaWa's (northeast convenience stores). It is the same thing only you can't hang around on the machine and check your email after you order. The idea is great and provides everyone with an information machine at their table. Let's check the movie times, here's a video to keep the kids quiet, let's check in at foursquare. (the machines should definitly urge people to like the restaurant on FB, follow on twitter, and check in on 4square). What I don't like is how it will effect people's incomes (tips) and replace human service. Waiting tables is a profession and one that should not be replaced. Part of the restaurant experience is being waited on (unless you get a bad one). Hopefully it will complement the service and not dominate it.

    Reply »
    • Pam (Author)
      August 25, 2011 at 11:42 am

      Great points Karlton - I agree, great idea with lots of potential for cross promoting and social networking engagement. But I personally LOVE being served, and I worry a little bit about the iPad taking away from the experience. If restaurant owners don't take it too far, it can be great. Thanks so much for reading and commenting :) Pam

      Reply »
  2. Jim Fierce
    August 26, 2011 at 8:58 am

    Hey Pam, I think it's a great idea and there are many other benefits for the restaurant as well. They can tie the menu into their inventory system as well as financials and run all kinds of reports real time. I agree with you that it is very important that the restaurants don't forget the personal touch. This can be easily handled by having the waiter/ waitress bring the ipad to the table and mention specials at the same time. There could even be a section on the menu for daily specials. For people who want to use old school menu the waiter/ waitress can give them the menu and simply type their order into the ipad.

    Reply »
    • Pam (Author)
      August 27, 2011 at 7:33 am

      Thanks for reading and commenting Jim! I agree, there are some definite marketing benefits and possible inventory etc (although many restaurants can already do this real-time through their POS). It will be important to keep the personal touch in other ways. I wonder if it might be an opportunity to elevate the role of the hostess in the restaurant experience. i can see hostesses becoming more like the maitre d' of your meal, truly welcoming and making guests comfortable, checking on them later, building a connection from the front door...

      Reply »
  3. July 23, 2012 at 12:11 am

    Pam, We have seen a growing number of restaurants using the iPad and our hands free sling pack to help their staff with protecting and making the device more adaptable for the work environment. One restaurant in particular is the Broken Yolk cafe in San Diego. check out our site at

    Reply »
    • Pam (Author)
      July 30, 2012 at 6:20 pm

      Thanks Ryan - I will check it out. Wish I could make it to San Diego to see it in action!

      Reply »

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