The use of tablet computers for menus, wine lists and ordering topped the list of 2015’s technology trends, according to the National Restaurant Association’s annual culinary forecast. In fact, tablets were cited by nearly 30 percent of the 1,200-plus industry insiders — besting also-rans including apps for diners; apps for chefs and restaurateurs; and mobile/wireless payment options. But are tablet-based menus, also known as e-menus, all they’re cracked up to be? Are they really positioned to result in the obsolescence not only of paper menus, but wait staff, too? Let’s take a closer look.
The Benefits of Tablet-Based Menu Services
While paper menus have long been an intrinsic part of the consumer experience as well as a tool for restaurants to boost sales, fans of e-menus propose that that evolution to tablets promises unilateral advantages. The core functionality of tablet-based menus allows customers to place orders which are electronically sent to and displayed on a console in the kitchen. However, e-menus also offer a number of additional advanced features for diners, including following:
• The ability to visualize the food thanks to appetizing pictures and detailed descriptions
• Order customization
• Multi-language functionality so guests can review the menu and place their order in their preferred language
• Enhanced opportunities for interaction, including access to nutritional information and calorie counts
• Less waiting time
• Reduced confusion and human error — both tableside and in the kitchen
But the perks of table-based menus don’t just apply to consumers. Restaurants are also positioned for everything from higher sales to enhanced diner engagement thanks to features including:
• Improved branding opportunities
• The ability to use tantalizing visuals to entice diners to order more
• Focused promotional campaigns
• Faster ordering and bill settling
• Reduction of labor expenses
• Enhanced guest loyalty programs
• Predictive analysis related to everything from how many guest to expect on any given day and what they might be most likely to order
• Post-meal survey capabilities to ensure best experiences and make immediate correction and/or rectification, as necessary
These perks of tablet-based menus are backed up by a recent survey conducted by leading technology supplier Long Range Systems, LLC (LRS) concluding that today’s diners “want more information and more control over their dining experience.” Claiming a top spot on the rundown of diner wants? The ability to look over menu items and even order while waiting for a table. Concludes LRS CEO Skip Cass, “It’s clear that diners are looking for a guest experience that respects their time and keeps them constantly informed on everything from the length of their wait to the calorie count of menu items. They’re also becoming much more accustomed to the advantages of digital technology – and in many cases are seeking out restaurants that are putting that technology to practical use.”
Potential Downsides of Tablet-Based Menus
While the notion of a restaurant industry future in which tablet-based menus are the standard mode of operations is an intriguing one, there are also some potential downsides. These include the following:
• While they may offer significant ROI, the initial investment in e-menus is steep compared to paper menus.
• If a menu is lost or ruined, there’s little risk or replacement cost. The threat of breakage or theft with a tablet is far more problematic.
• While credit card security is always improving, the issue is twofold: even if personal data isn’t at stake, customers may perceive that it is.
• With technology everywhere they turn, some customers might object to the technological requirement in an otherwise tech-free space.
• While humans are adaptable, machines are not. If a customer wants to change his/her order or make a post-order request, how is this integrated into the e-menu process?
• Implementing a tablet-based menu system also means integrating that system with preexisting technological functions, such as POS and CRM software.
• Many diners enjoy the personal element of knowing a human cares about their experience — particularly in upscale establishments where customer service is an inherent part of the dining experience.
E-Menus: For Some, But Not For All
Says NRA senior VP Hudson Riehle, “True trends – as opposed to temporary fads – show the evolution of the wider shifts of our modern society over time.” And certainly, technology — specifically the mobile movement — is here to stay, which is why most experts agree that e-menus represent an exciting and necessary time in the restaurant industry. However, many also agree that adopting tablet-based menus doesn’t not mean that all e-menu adoptions are one-size-fits-all, nor do they mandate the complete elimination of conventional wait staff for anything other than the delivery of food.
One line of thinking proposes that tablets may work best in the hands of waiters, not consumers. This delivers much of the same access to information and other time-saving benefits, while salvaging face-time otherwise lost to tablet-based menus. However, this approach can also be seen as sacrificing several of the advantages of completely adopting the technology.
Another possible solution? Give customers access to tablets for browsing and ordering food, as well as access to a waiter in case of exceptions. In other words, even if tablets represent the latest hospitality industry innovation, they’re best when supplementing — not supplanting — the capabilities of wait staff. The ultimate challenge in this case lies not in whether tablets are a replacement for conventional menu and ordering processes, but how they can be integrated alongside the human element to enhance operations while improving the customer experience.
Ultimately, while e-menus are absolutely a given in the future of the restaurant world, how they’ll be used –or whether they’ll be used at all — will vary from restaurant to restaurant. Because with profitability the imperative above all else in the competitive restaurant industry, establishments must first ask and understand one question: What is most likely to satisfy their diners and keep them coming back for more? This means considering the unique costs of adopting the tablet trend as it applies to their own unique businesses and brands while always keeping quality service, the customer experience and profitability at the forefront.