Restaurants Start to Harness Power of iPads

Despite being less than a year old, iPads are everywhere from classrooms to subways, and the must-have tablet will soon be hitting another major venue: restaurants. Small business owners from New York to California are slowly beginning to embrace tablet technology as a quick and easy way for consumers to have more control over their dining experience.

Stacked: Food Well Built will open its first of three California locations this May in Torrance with more than 100 iPads sitting atop its tables. Customers can use the tablets to design and build their own burgers, pizzas and salads, in what co-founder Paul Motenko refers to as “fast-casual” dining. Diners can also use the device to pay their bill.

While patrons may be lured into Stacked because of the iPads the first time, Motenko said the restaurant’s goal is to have them return for the service and dining experience, rather than the flashy technology.

“The key for us has always been for the technology to facilitate the experience,” he said. “Regardless of why people walk in for the first time, it’s up to us to provide an experience that makes them want to come back.”

Motenko would not say if Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) provided a discount for the small business’ investment, but he did say Stacked is working closely with the tech titan.

“They are very excited about what we are doing, and will probably help us in a variety of ways,” Motenko said. “What is more significant to Apple is the number of people who will be exposed to using the iPad in our restaurants. We are expecting about 7,000 customers per week, per restaurant, using an iPad—that is an awful lot of exposure.”

New York City-based 4Food opened last September with six iPads for customers to order their food on. 4Food allows customers to create and name their own hamburgers with 96 million combinations, according to Adam Kidron, co-founder and managing partner.

“They do all their thinking on the iPads,” Kidron said. “The customers love them. We like them, but know their limitations.”

One limitation, for example, was that customers had to enter all of their payment information on the actual iPad before external squares were created for customers to swipe their credit cards. Regardless, the tablets have been a great marketing tool, and manage to draw crowds for the restaurant, which has plans to expand and add an additional six-18 Android tablets next month.

“People see customers using the iPads, and come in off the street,” Kidron said. “But we don’t want to be an Apple store—we want to enable a better user process. We want to find out which will be best.”

In the nearly six months since the restaurant opened, customers have created and named 10 million different types of burgers. Each time someone orders a burger you created, you get a $0.25 credit to the restaurant, Kidron said.

Samara Lynn, lead analyst of Business and Networking at PC Magazine said this type of technology is the next big trend in the restaurant industry. It is already catching on with tech-savvy crowds on both coasts, but has potential appeal for Middle America as well.

“It’s not contingent on the iPad so much as it is contingent on wireless networking technology,” Lynn said. “The iPad is more glitzy, glamorous, so there is definitely a marketing aspect there.”

This format may seem costly, but can end up allowing small businesses to save money in the end. If the iPad is going to essentially replace servers and menus, it eliminates employee salaries and menu printing costs. It is a big purchase for a restaurant to make though and should be considered carefully, Lynn said.

“As tablets come down in cost, this is more of a possibility,” she said. “For this type of a fast-food restaurant, buying the tablet is a one-time cost. You don’t have the recurring costs of paying food service workers, menu updates--it's definitely worth doing the math on.”

Kidron said that while 4Food has saved money using the iPads as point-of-sales stations in the restaurant, the tablets are not yet battle ready. This type of technology is still being developed and will soon move the entire business model to the cloud.

“The real development has yet to come,” he said. “This is really an interim stage. By next year we will have gotten rid of POS in stores and all transactions will be in the cloud. When that happens, it will absolutely revolutionize business and allow real flexibility for the customer.”

Motenko said any owners considering opening with or integrating this type of technology into their business need to consider the diners’ experience. Creating a proprietary system for Stacked was tedious, costly and fun, but in the end will make for what Motenko hopes will be a better and more innovative experience for consumers. The technology certainly isn’t for just any type of restaurant, especially if it has a large menu for diners to choose from.

“If a company wanted to put iPads in the restaurant just to say they have them that might work for a week or month” he said. “But if you can’t give the guest a better experience because of technology, then you have just wasted a lot of money. It wasn’t about the technology for us, it’s about the concept.”

Certain establishments can’t and shouldn’t try to move to this new model, Lynn warned, especially higher-end restaurants where great service is expected. However, in today’s fast-paced world, many feel the sooner they can dine and dash, the better.

“With a lot of these places, and I know especially in New York City, the faster the better,” she said. “If I can push a couple of buttons and have my food ready quickly, that’s great.”