Nowadays, it’s not that unusual to see an iPad serving as a menu or ordering device, but back in 2011, when Paul Motenko and Jerry Hennessy, co-founders of Stacked: Food Well Built, added iPads to their three Southern California restaurants, the idea was quite novel.

“It all started with wanting to have a narrow focus in our menu of categories that we perceived as America’s favorite foods. And we wanted to create a level of customization that was never done before,” Motenko says. “It was quite the challenge and too cumbersome a process for a menu board. We came to the realization that the only way to do it properly would be to have a touch-screen device at every table so guests can create the dish and when they liked what they saw, send it through to the kitchen.”

For the last four years, customers use the iPads to order hamburgers, pizza, salads, and sausages, customizing items such as buns, toppings, and sauces. There is an iPad mounted on every table, and big groups have more than one available to make it as efficient as possible.

“Guests embrace the technology—especially those under 35, who believe this is the way restaurants should be operating as technology gets them exactly what they want,” Motenko says. “The older people fall into several categories: Some don’t want anything to do with this, and for those people we are always there to take their order the old-fashioned way. We don’t force any guests to use the technology. Others are intrigued by it and see it as a fun, cool thing to do.”

The restaurant collects electronic commentaries at the end of each guest transaction, and 74 percent report the iPads made the experience “more enjoyable,” while only 2 percent said it was “less enjoyable.” Additionally, 70 percent of first-time guests and more than 80 percent of repeat users rated its “ease of use” a 4, with that being the highest approval possible on the scaled rating.

“Originally, the [concept] was more fast-casual in nature in terms of how guests worked the ordering system. We quickly found that wasn’t what our guests wanted,” Motenko says. “They wanted a full-service experience, so we changed some of our systems. Guests still order on the iPad, but everything else about the experience is full-service, including attention from staff and concierge service at the table. From the moment someone walks in, they feel like it’s a premium-casual full-service experience, except for the non-traditional way they order food.”

During recent years, the restaurant has made key enhancements on the menu and in the restaurant by adding a sandwich category, which is also available on the iPads for customization. Stacked is opening its fifth location in the fall, which will be in Huntington Beach, California, and will also offer breakfast on the iPads.

The brand is now at the point of replacing a significant number of its original iPads, primarily due to the card readers “getting a little shaky” and because newer software doesn’t integrate well into the original iPad’s operating system.

“It hasn’t changed much in the last four years. The good news is we spent years developing the user interface and the one thing we got right was the functionality of the user interface,” Motenko says. “We constantly enhance it, but fundamentally it hasn’t changed.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Stacked has not had much trouble with theft of the iPads. Each is fitted with an alarm that sounds if it’s carried out the door, and only once has someone tried to steal one—an unsuccessful attempt at that.

Motenko says it costs around $80,000 per restaurant to install the iPads, and the return on investment isn’t significant.

We don’t really save much on labor costs. For us, it’s about providing guests a great experience, and we look at ROI in terms of revenue,” he says. “People ask me all the time if they should do this. I tell them it’s highly unlikely it’s going to dramatically change the economics of a restaurant, but if it changes the guest experience for the better, it might be worthwhile.”

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Feature, Technology, STACKED