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Restaurant technology isn't replacing humans yet

FILE - This Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, file photo, shows the door at a Chipotle Mexican Grill in Robinson Township, Pa. On Tuesday, April 29, 2014, Chioptle Chief Financial Officer Jack Hartung noted that the chain doesn’t currently charge a whole lot more for its steak filling, even though beef costs have climbed considerably. He says Chipotle will widen the price gap between steak and chicken. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

At Panera Bread (PNRA), you're getting the option of dealing with a kiosk at the store instead of a cashier. Visit the local Chili's and you'll see tablets at the booth to help with orders. If you find the Domino's (DPZ) app too reliant on buttons, don't worry -- you can start interacting with a computerized voice.

Buffalo Wild Wings (BWLD) is installing tabletop tablets for ordering chicken and listening to music. Wendy's (WEN), Starbucks (SBUX) and Chipotle (CMG) let you pay for and order your fries, coffee or burritos on smartphones. It goes on and on.

High tech arrives everywhere eventually, and restaurants are incorporating it as quickly as they can. Billed variously as a means to improve order accuracy and get customers to buy more food or to maximize staff efficiency, restaurants are becoming as concerned with databases as they are with dinner specials.

Companies fear falling short on technology will send patrons, particularly millennials, to establishments serving up digital convenience. Competition for the diner's dollar already is a daily worry, and with traffic flat or down for many segments of the industry, they can't take that chance.

Is technology the answer? Certainly it will benefit some, though not every approach is going to work everywhere. For instance, fast-food chains might find mobile-phone apps encourage patrons to make more visits, yet it's not entirely clear how in-store tablets would help a group that gets around two-thirds of its U.S. sales from drive-through windows. That hasn't stopped McDonald's (MCD) from running a tablet test in California. But it might eventually decide that, while this works in Europe or Asia, another technology is best domestically. It'll all be sorted out amid the tests and failures.

What ultimately matters is whether that technology is in fact making it better for diners and improving sales, whether it's worth the investment for companies and, not to be forgotten, what it means for employees in an industry the National Restaurant Association says has over 13 million positions. These are unknowns.

Here's how recent visits to see some of the new technology went at a couple of well-known brands.

Chili's tablets

At Chili's, owned by Dallas-based Brinker International (EAT), tablets are now everywhere in the dining room and bar area, yet there's no evident shortage of staff members. Walk in, be greeted by a host, get taken to a table and given the menu, much the same as in the pre-tablet world.

The devices here, from a company called Ziosk, didn't have the entire menu. Instead, they contained a few small items, appetizers and drinks, and they allowed for refills. You can read USA Today on the tablet, and there are trivia questions to help pass the time. In this case, it wasn't a complete overhaul of the ordering system, though it might well improve certain timeliness aspects of a meal, especially at lunch.  For entrees and burgers, we were given the same physical menu as always.

Now, the mere fact that refills can be ordered with the tablet is on its own worth calling out, as anyone who's ever sat at a restaurant knows what it's like to go too long without one. However, on our visit, the human server noticed refills were needed before the tablet order could even be placed.

When it's time to pay, the tablet can be used to decide when. Credit cards are accepted, and that's certainly a time-saver. If you're not interested in that, cash can still be used for payment.

So the tablet helps in a few areas at Chili's, and undoubtedly some diners will be dazzled. At the same time, if one chooses, it can be ignored entirely. Either way, human employees are still very much part of the equation. Again, it's early, so this could change over time.

Panera kiosks

Panera's kiosks, still arriving in stores, are part of a broader plan by the St. Louis-based bakery operator to keep customers from going elsewhere at lunch. Here, the entire menu is available, from breads to soups to drinks, and an inventory tracker is included to indicate items that are sold out. Order a sandwich, and you can go into the digital basket to customize it.

The kiosk offers users the ability to access loyalty accounts and to choose to repeat past orders. That's a potentially tremendous convenience. For a regular customer who knows the menu, especially one visiting at busy times, the kiosks are likely to prove popular.

As with Chili's though, plenty of employees are still in the store, including one offering to help with the kiosks. There are cashiers for the regular lines, kitchen staff, facilitators at the take-out window and others delivering orders to tables. It's not overly different from Panera last year.

Panera has seen traffic growth stumble recently, which the company mainly has attributed to lines building up to unacceptable levels amid crowded and confusing stores, leading some diners to leave. It thinks the kiosks, which allow visitors to skip the line, will mitigate this problem, along with changes to store design.

However, the machines don't have a cash-payment option, so before ordering, make sure you have your card. Receipts aren't automatically provided, though patrons can request one. And a note for take-out orders: The kiosk has read your name from your card, which is then displayed on a screen at the carry-out station. In some cases, it was a first initial and full last name, and in others, a first name only. For visitors who prefer anonymity, it's something to consider. (Of course, they also call out your name at Starbucks, so customers might not mind.)

If there is no line, it's not clear that the kiosk will save much, if any, time. It's also not clear how the stores will prevent lines from building at the kiosks themselves. Of course, some people will simply prefer the new technology either way, and if it leads to more lunch orders overall, Panera's popularity "problem" would be a nice one to have.

So it might help out during busy times, and maybe it will reboot Panera's traffic growth, but even with the conveniences, it may not be for everyone.

Ultimately, technology is a fact of life. It's not going away at restaurants anymore than we're giving up our vehicles for the horse and carriage. But it's still developing. It's not a panacea. The food still has to be good, the price has to be fair, and people have to be involved.

For now, at least.