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Applebee’s plans to bring tablet computers to every table next year

Updated: 2013-12-04T02:03:01Z

By STEVE ROSEN

and JOYCE SMITH The Kansas City Star

Applebee’s will start serving tablets in 2014.

The Kansas City-based restaurant chain on Tuesday announced it will install 100,000 tablet computers in its more than 1,800 locations nationwide by the end of next year. A tablet will be placed at each table and in multiple bar locations.

The goal is to allow diners to add to their food and drink orders, play video games as often as they want for a dollar and pay the check — all from the comfort of their seats.

The computers won’t take the place of menus, and customers will continue to place their initial meal order through waiters and waitresses, Applebee’s said.

“Very clearly, our intention is not to replace servers, and neither we nor our franchisees plan to reduce staff,” said Applebee’s spokesman Dan Smith.

But waiting for the server to deliver the check may be coming to an end.

“Let’s face it, everyone who has ever been to a restaurant has been frustrated by waiting for their check,” Mike Archer, Applebee’s president, said in a statement announcing the project. “Starting out, our goal was to create a way for guests to control when and how they pay their check. What we learned after nearly two years of testing is that we can provide much more.”

Thirty-eight Applebee’s restaurants in 11 states, including six in the Kansas City market, participated in testing the tablets.

The Applebee’s at 16110 W. 135th St. in Olathe is currently the only area location to have installed the tablets, Smith said.

Applebee’s said its testing found that the technology cut wait times and allowed employees to provide better service “and more attention to guest needs throughout the dining experience, rather than focusing on delivering a check.” In addition, the Applebee’s restaurants that tested the product experienced increases in appetizer and dessert sales.

Over the next 18 months, Applebee’s said it expects to add more features, such as video streaming, music, additional games, gift card sales and social media interaction.

The restaurant company did not disclose financial details of the technology upgrade.

Kansas City area Applebee’s locations will be in the first wave of restaurants to be outfitted with the tablets, Smith said.

“I’m sure they have done their research, and they have the buying power and the cushion to try this,” said Shannon Hickey, executive director of the Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association.

It will be a customer convenience if the software is reliable and user friendly, she said. And while she hopes it is a success, she sees consumers who are often frustrated with glitches in self-service checkouts at grocery stores and retail chains.

“I don’t see it for high-end restaurants, where guests still enjoy the personal touch,” Hickey said.

Applebee’s is not the first restaurant chain to tap into tablets. A prime casual dining competitor, Chili’s Grill & Bar, began installing tablets in its restaurants earlier this year and has since seen improvements in customer satisfaction surveys, the company said. Chili’s plans to have Ziosk tablets in all of its 823 company-owned restaurants nationwide in the first half of 2014.

Applebee’s chose E la Carte, a 5-year-old Silicon Valley company, to provide its Presto tablets. The computers have 7-inch screens, run on the Android operating system and feature an illuminated credit card reader and a sturdy design to withstand spills and bumps.

“E la Carte designed Presto specifically for restaurants,” Arvind Sodhani, president of Intel Capital, said in the statement.

The investment firm, which is associated with Intel Corp., has backed E la Carte’s tablet technology.

DineEquity, the Glendale, Calif.-based parent company of Applebee’s, also said it is considering outfitting its IHOP restaurants with tablets, but no timetable was disclosed.

Industry experts said the technology could cut somewhat into labor costs — good for the company, not so good for the staff. Still, consumers could not only benefit from the convenience, they could get better service from servers who won’t have as many tasks on their plates.

“Many consumers — especially younger ones — also have come to expect technology options in many aspects of their lives, and that is increasingly also applying to their restaurant visits,” said Annika Stensson, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association.

While electronic ordering and payment at the restaurant table is not yet commonplace, it’s a trend that will grow, she said.

“But it won’t replace the human factor, as hospitality and a ‘personal touch’ are still essential parts of dining out,” Stensson said.

To reach Steve Rosen, call 816-234-4879 or send email to srosen@kcstar.com. To reach Joyce Smith, call 816-234-4692 or send email to jsmith@kcstar.com. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter at JoyceKC.

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