Carmel Café and Wine Bar.

Spending Spikes with Digital Menus, As Do Costs

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Carmel Café and Wine Bar in Tampa, Florida, uses iPads with a MenuPad app at each of its four locations.
By Daniel P. Smith January 2013 Technology

A three-year-old establishment in St. Louis, The Post Sports Bar & Grill fashions itself a forward-thinking, cutting-edge enterprise unafraid of technology’s rapid pulse.

With that spirit in tow, The Post owner Adrian Glass brought in the upstart eTab device two years ago. Integrated with the restaurant’s point-of-sale (POS) system, the Android-based tabletop device is a digital menu that enables guests to order, pay at the table, and also page wait staff, who carry a wireless device that monitors diners’ needs and decisions.

“People aren’t afraid of technology and they want to use it,” Glass says. “By bringing this in so early, we thought we’d be ahead of others.”

Spurred by the growing number of smartphone-toting, tech-savvy, wired guests clamoring for an interactive experience that delivers control and customization, Glass is part of a growing number of operators serving technology on the table.

In fact, according to a recent study from Technomic, “Market Intelligence Report: Consumer-Facing Technology,” 51 percent of respondents said it is important for restaurants to integrate technology into their ordering capabilities.

According to the report, consumers are most receptive to placing digital orders in casual-dining restaurants and, as a general rule, younger consumers—those under 45—are more inclined to connect with restaurants via a mobile app or order using a touchscreen menu. And even though 71 percent of consumers have yet to use a tableside touchscreen device to self-order and pay, Technomic reports these technologies remain the top tools that customers can envision using.

Carmel Café and Wine Bar, a four-unit, Tampa, Florida–based concept, began using the interactive MenuPad app two years ago. Each restaurant now has 70 iPads displaying product photos, descriptions, and prices, alongside complementary information such as wine pairings.

“We could see consumers getting more educated about technology and wanting convenience and control, so we delivered just that,” Carmel Café president Terry Ryan says.

At The Post, Glass says his diners enjoy controlling the meal’s pace, including when they order, pay, and leave. Glass, meanwhile, enjoys how the eTab speeds orders into the kitchen and promotes upselling and reorders. He says the average check jumps 20 percent when customers use the digital device.

Yet for all of tableside tech’s prospects and sprouting consumer interest, discernment remains a necessity.

Quinn McKenna, senior vice president of operations for San Francisco–based Lark Creek Restaurant Group, says his company has long explored ways technology can improve business and enhance customer satisfaction.

“But we’ve held a pragmatic and cautious approach when it has come to adopting technology,” McKenna says.

In late 2011, Lark Creek began an eight-week trial of digital iPad menus at its Lark Creek Steak restaurant. McKenna and his team were intrigued by the ability to show high-resolution images and share information beyond what is typically presented on paper or by a server. They hypothesized that the high-tech menus would provide deeper and richer communication with customers.

While the iPad menus excited the vast majority of customers and even heightened spending, Lark Creek eventually rejected adoption. The company determined that the costs, IT upkeep, and inherent redundancy associated with updating both digital and paper menus—after all, some guests still desired old-fashioned print—to be too great.

While convinced digital menus will soon become commonplace, McKenna cautions operators against rushing to adopt the latest innovations without considering the operational and service components as well as the ongoing costs and the impact on the customer experience.

“Operators adopting such technology would be wise to ask themselves: ‘Who am I going to task with this responsibility?’” he says.

At The Post, Glass acknowledges it took some time for both servers and guests to embrace the eTab. Today, however, he calls the response “overwhelmingly positive.”

While The Post continues allowing its guests to determine if they will use the tabletop device or rely strictly on wait staff—an option retained by most restaurants—Glass predicts a tipping point within the next 5–7 years in which consumer-interfacing, tableside technology goes from novel to the norm.

“Ultimately, what works well will interest the customer,” he says.