Column: Using tablets to improve restaurant efficiency

Guest ColumnistFebruary 11, 2013 

Laura Baverman, guest columnist

I read a rant recently on the blog of a well-known Silicon Valley venture capitalist lamenting how much the restaurant industry lags the rest of the business world in embracing technology.

Sure, many of us are accustomed to booking tables through OpenTable or checking Yelp for restaurant reviews, but the actual dining experience really hasn’t changed much. We’re greeted and seated, a server takes our order by hand, delivers it to the bar and kitchen and at some point between taking orders and serving other tables, we receive our food. And then we wait for a check, provide payment and wait again.

And during all the waiting, any number of things can go wrong.

It all hit home for me when I dined at the downtown Raleigh tapas restaurant ORO, and witnessed at-the-table iPad ordering for the first time.

The waiter operated with such ease, confirming our order by showing us his screen. When the meal was complete, we handed the waiter a credit card. He swiped it on the iPad and handed it right back. But perhaps most surprising was the speed at which the entire meal happened. We were out in under an hour.

How hard could it have been to find and implement this technology?

Turns out, not hard at all. ORO chef Chris Hylton and his wife and partner, Cara Zalcberg Hylton, knew they wanted a higher-tech solution than the typical point-of-sale touch screen and hardware. Before opening in May 2012, they attended a restaurant show in New York and found dozens of options for using tablet devices to take orders.

A startup company called Ambur in Buffalo, N.Y., would be the eventual choice. It charged a flat fee of $999 to download an app, and the Hyltons purchased 11 Wi-Fi enabled iPads. They operate on a Wi-Fi connection dedicated only to the system.

The Hyltons spent about $15,000, compared with the $25,000 they expected to pay for a traditional system. They’ve since found the iPads to generate more sales for the restaurant – servers are more efficient, and tables turn over faster.

“The server is placing the order at the table, so they never have to stop and go back to a terminal,” Zalcberg Hylton says. “Servers are able to have larger sections because of the efficiency of the iPad.”

She attributes a 100 percent employee retention rate since opening in large part to ease provided by the iPads. And customers have been pleased too.

“It’s different, and it’s a good conversation piece,” Zalcberg Hylton says. “Customers are happy because they get their food and drinks faster.”

But the investment was an incredible risk, she admits. No one else in Raleigh had used it (Ambur has a restaurant client in Greensboro and one in Charlotte), and they were first-time restaurant operators. If the system went down, a night could be ruined and the restaurant’s reputation damaged.

“We did two years of research. We practiced a ton before we opened. And we crossed our fingers,” Zalcberg Hylton says. “It ended up going OK.”

Laura Baverman spent eight years covering business for Cincinnati newspapers before moving to Raleigh in October.

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