Tabletop computer screens that take menu orders, accept payments by credit card and let diners play videogames are about to get much more common, changing how waiters and restaurant guests interact.
Chili's Grill & Bar, one of the largest casual-dining chains in the U.S., plans to announce Tuesday that it will install tabletop screens in most of its 1,266 U.S. restaurants by early next year. The chain owned by Brinker International Inc. (EAT) has been testing the devices since early this year. The screens, made by Dallas-based Ziosk LLC, are essentially tablet computers mounted to a sturdy base and loaded with pictures of menu items, as well as a credit-card swipe device and games that can be played for 99 cents at Chili's.
Restaurant-goers who dine at tables with the devices often spend more per check, because they tend to buy more desserts and coffee when the screen is present, said Krista Gibson, senior vice president of brand strategy for Chili's. Pictures of desserts pop up on the screen midway through the main course, when people start to think about what they will eat next, Ms. Gibson said. Dessert sales increased almost 20% in tests, she said, and coffee sales also rose when featured in a similar way. Chili's is also considering promoting alcoholic beverages during meals, Ms. Gibson said.
For now, Chili's customers can't order an entire meal or a first round of drinks on the device. The machines didn't prompt any job reductions among waiters, Ms. Gibson said. "We never pursued this as a way to cut labor," she said, adding that a server needs to be "the first person who comes in contact with our guests."
About 50% of diners choose to pay via the machine when it is part of a table, likely because they dislike waiting for a check when they are ready to leave, Ms. Gibson said.
Chili's also is able to gather additional data about its customers when the screens are present, Ms. Gibson said. More people are willing to provide their email addresses and answer survey-style questions at the end of a meal, she said.
Ziosk is one of several companies pitching tabletop devices for restaurants. The devices enable diners to order and pay for their meals, and sometimes flash ads or offer entertainment to diners for a fee. Midtier and higher-end restaurants have been careful to maintain personal interaction between diners and waiters. Some higher-end restaurants, for instance, use tablet computers to give detailed descriptions of wines, but not to take orders or allow diners to pay. But at least one device maker said restaurants with tabletop screens could hire slightly fewer servers or reduce the hours of wait-staff employees.
Device makers said diners' tips generally increase when the screens are present because the devices suggest a tip percentage, helping to weed out low tippers.
Chili's and other casual-dining chains continue to face challenges that emerged during the recession, as consumers often remain reluctant to spend. The casual-dining segment—an industry term for concepts such as Chili's and Olive Garden, an Italian-restaurant chain—is losing customers to fast-food and so-called fast-casual" restaurants, such as like Panera Bread and Chipotle Mexican Grill. Chili's has revamped menu items and décor in recent years, adding sleeker television sets and more references to baby-back ribs and margaritas.
Applebee's, a casual-dining chain owned by DineEquity Inc. (DIN), tested several tabletop screens in recent years, including the Ziosk and two similar devices, Presto and eTab. Applebee's, the largest casual-dining chain in the U.S., continues to test a variety of screens, including the Ziosk, a spokesman for the restaurant group said.
Chili's pays Ziosk a monthly fee to use the screens, and the companies split profits from the 99-cent videogame fee. Overall, about one in 10 tables play the games and pay the fee, but the percentage is higher when chidren are present, said Austen Mulinder, president and chief executive of Ziosk. Both companies declined to share specifics of the deal.
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