Mollie Frace, left, and Christopher Balcastro use a tablet to order items for their table at the Chili’s restaurant in Timonium, Md., on June 24.

Jeffrey MacMillan | The Washington Post

When Martin Hines takes his 8-year-old daughter for a weekday lunch at the Chili’s Bar & Grill in Timonium, Md., this summer, he’s looking for quick service so he can return to work.

Instead of waiting for an employee to bring his check, he prefers to swipe his credit card on an electronic tablet placed at each table, which also prints his receipt. During the meal, his daughter usually plays games on the tablet for a flat fee of 99 cents — a price Hines is willing to pay to keep her entertained.

During the past few months, Chili’s has installed 45,000 tablets at more than 800 locations across the United States. Though customers are still visited by a human waiter, they can use these devices to order certain items — desserts and drinks, once the waiter has verified their age — as well as to pay checks or play games. The tablets are intended to alleviate the burden on wait-staff by automatically relaying orders to the kitchen, and expediting payment, according to Chili’s.

“It’s convenient to use,” Hines said. So far, he has only used the payment and game functions of the tablet. “Next time, I would maybe (use it) to order.”

Diners such as Hines are still getting comfortable with tableside tablets; while about 80 percent use at least one of their functions, a minority reject them completely. And for Chili’s, training employees to manage a new technology, or integrating the software with existing systems are added challenges.

Tableside tablets are proliferating in fast-casual restaurants. In December, Applebee’s announced it would install 100,000 tablets at its restaurants in the United States by the end of 2014. Ziosk, the Dallas-based tech company that builds tablets for Chili’s, is also working on similar devices for Uno’s Pizzeria and Red Robin, among other chains.

“We recognize that although the industry aggregates a phenomenal number of people, (restaurants face) rising food costs, rising labor costs (and) rising health care costs,” said Ziosk chief executive Austen Mulinder.

Chili’s Timonium location has had the tablets for about three months. Ziosk pockets the fee for games, covering the cost of Chili’s subscription; any extra revenue is split between the two companies.

Manager Eric Halfpap said he thinks his wait staff has been generating more tips since tablets were installed because service has been quicker. Tablet orders are automatically relayed to a screen in the kitchen. If customers opt to pay on the tablet, waiters don’t have to process the check. Waiters “can now help other people out,” with fewer orders to process, he said.

Across all locations with tablets, about 70 percent of customers use them to pay, especially to split checks two or three ways, according to Chili’s.

The tablets also helped Chili’s collect customer satisfaction data, said chief marketing officer Krista Gibson. When users pay the check, they are prompted to fill out a five- to seven-part questionnaire about food quality and service. Before the tablets, paper receipts directed customers to fill the survey out online, with about a 1 percent response rate. Now, Gibson said, the response rate is closer to 25 percent.

(2) comments


Pay your bill from the tablet is very nice. Games, well, not such a good experience. Will have to try ordering food sometime.


Beware of the games on those tablets.

I clicked on a trivia game. The screen popped up and said something close to "Congratulations! You have unlocked unlimited games" There was a prominent button in the middle of the screen that you clicked on to start playing. Below that was a much smaller button that said something like "Cancel - $1.99" to cancel the $1.99 purchase. Here are the problems I found with the design and they are very close to what I consider low life Internet trickery. 1) There was no clear mention of the games costing the customer anything prior to clicking on them. No price or anything clearly stated for each game. 2) After clicking on the game, the messaging seems to indicate you are free to play without accepting any charges. Nothing saying "Click HERE to pay $#.## to play" 3) The only button to cancel the assumed (on the game's part) purchase is a grayed out (but not apparently disabled) button. I have worked as an I/T Software Test Engineer/QA professional for Fortune 500 companies for more than 10 years. Many of those years on Customer Facing ecom sites. The design is poor and can easily lead to unexpected purchases. I expected better from a major restaurant.

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