That endless wait for the restaurant check soon may be over. Applebee’s, the nation’s largest casual dining chain, today will announce plans to place tablets at every table in Harlem and every one of its U.S. restaurants by the end of 2014. Folks can use the tablets to pay whenever they want — and to order things like appetizers, desserts or even play video games.
The action follows a similar move by rival Chili’s, which already has begun the process of placing tablets at its company-owned locations. IHOP, also owned by Applebee’s parent, DineEquity, is looking into tablets, too.
The way Americans pay for and order food when eating out is about to be turned on its head. If these high-tech moves — already common at eateries in parts of Europe and Asia — are a hit domestically, much of the $70 billion full-service and casual dining industry is expected to follow.
“Looking out over the next decade, it will become fairly routine for consumers in table service restaurants to use tablets to view menus, place orders and pay bills,” says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research at the National Restaurant Association.
Tablets will “change the way we interact with guests in restaurants,” says Mike Archer, president of Applebee’s, which has 1,865 locations nationally. The chain’s move to roll out nearly 100,000 tablets will rank among the largest-ever rollout of tablet technology in the private sector.
At Applebee’s and Chili’s, customers will continue to order their meals via waiters and waitresses. The move to tablets squarely targets Millennials, says Riehle, more than 80% of whom say they fully expect restaurants to offer improved technologies.
Chili’s president Wyman Roberts, says its restaurants with the devices have seen improvements in both guest satisfaction and customer “engagement,” though the company declined to discuss details of its ongoing rollout. Its 800 company-owned restaurants all will have tablets by the middle of next year.
At both chains, the tablets have 7-inch screens, which are larger than most cellphones but smaller than most conventional tablets.
But will this make eating-out better for customers?
One hospitality expert isn’t so sure. “Other than the coolness factor, what benefits will it have over the long term?” poses Christopher Muller, hospitality professor at Boston University.
Archer insists there will be many. Besides making the paying of bills and additional ordering easier, he says, customers can play games for about a buck. The 50 Applebee’s restaurants that have tested the devices have seen boosts in appetizer and dessert sales, he says.
Theft of the devices has not been an issue, Archer notes, because the tablets are unusable once removed from the restaurant.
Applebee’s opted not to use the tablets as menu replacements. Customers still will be handed individual menus, Archer says.
Most importantly, he notes, guests will no longer have to wait around for their checks. ‘Who hasn’t felt like they’ve been held hostage waiting for a check to arrive?” he says.