Consumers spend hours navigating apps on their mobile devices. Now restaurants are getting in on the game.

As hardware costs drop, restaurants are arming servers with sleek, handheld units that manage orders, communicate with the kitchen, and improve table turns. These were a few motives that prompted The Monument Cafe in Georgetown, Texas, to add the technology to its namesake brand and sister concept over the last two years.

Serving 500,000 guests a year, “we wanted to expand hospitality and increase interaction between our diners and servers,” says Rusty Winkstern, co-owner of The Monument Cafe, a roadside restaurant with farm-to-table fare.

The restaurant’s servers began using NCR Orderman devices in 2012, accurately capturing diners’ preferences, substitutions, dietary requirements, or other special requests via an interactive touch screen. Orders are electronically delivered to the kitchen within seconds.

The company’s El Monumento brand followed suit in 2013. Armed with 24 interactive devices, servers are improving the dining experience for its 250,000 annual guests. Winkstern says servers now validate orders more easily and eliminate mistakes and the need to return to the table.

Both locations upped the ante this spring by adding runners to the mix. As servers input drink and appetizer orders, runners deliver prepared drinks and starters to the table, often while the server is still explaining the menu and specials, or taking main course orders.

Between the two eateries, servers turn tables eight to 10 minutes faster, and order mistakes dropped from 5 percent per day to less than 1 percent.

Kentucky-based Tumbleweed Tex Mex Grill & Margarita Bar, a casual-dining chain with 25 locations, integrated mobile tableside ordering when it opened its two-floor Louisville location in 2005.

“With one-third of our seating (about 150 seats) on an outdoor patio, we needed to communicate,” says director of IT Steve Brooks. “We wanted more order accuracy and more security when taking card payments tableside.”


Supporting 40 Motorola devices across the restaurant, Tumbleweed improved table turns by 10 percent and decreased check comps, thanks to servers’ access to all menu items.

Even at all-time low levels, the cost for mobile ordering still deters companies, especially those with a large waitstaff. Case in point: only Tumbleweed’s Louisville location uses the technology. “The cost of the technology made it less cost-effective to use company-wide,” Brooks explains. “The best return on investment for us is to apply the technology across larger restaurants with higher volumes.”

Other issues keeping mobile projects on operators’ back burners include a lack of durable devices that can sustain being dropped, spilled on, or stored near hot plates or equipment. They also complain that Wi-Fi connections are still not strong enough to support a reliable, multi-user mobile operation.

Coming Down the Pike

Other restaurants are putting mobility directly into guests’ hands. Through its partnership with Ziosk, Chili’s Grill & Bar is rolling out touchscreen tablets at every table across more than 800 units. Among the locations already outfitted with the digital solution, there has been a 20 percent increase in sales of desserts, according to the company.

Buffalo Wild Wings is underway with a similar strategy, planning to install tablets chainwide by the end of 2015. These projects pale in comparison to Applebee’s anticipated 1,800-plus location installation of 100,000 devices by year-end—the industry’s biggest rollout to date.

Restaurateur Mina Desiderio is waiting for reliability to improve before considering tablet technology. The owner of three San Diego eateries remains bullish on the benefits, nonetheless. “The idea of using the handhelds instead of stationary POS systems that take up valuable space, and the time savings they offer, promises huge advantages,” she says.

New York City­­­­–based City Winery can attest to the pros and cons of mobility. The restaurant, wine bar, and music venue adopted a first-generation mobile-ordering solution five years ago in its flagship SoHo location, but weaned off the technology after connection issues and short battery life, among other struggles.

Now, City Winery is blending the best of both mobile strategies with an app from PayPal and NCR. PayPal users check in to City Winery through the app, then make their initial drink or food order with their waiter. When the order arrives, the waiter also gives the party a code to enter into the app. Besides electronically alerting the server when they are ready to re-order, guests can also use the app to pay their tab.

Since adding the service a year ago, “We have between a 4 and 5 percent user rate during events that host more than 100 guests,” says David Richter, City Winery’s general manager. “It improves guest service and efficiency for our servers, especially during busy events.”

Feature, Technology