Abuelo’s finds that the right balance of technology can enhance its hospitality and menu, which includes dishes like the Pork Tenderloin Abrigada.

For Restaurants, a More Human Touch of Tech is Key

Restaurants continue to streamline their operations with new tech, but never at the expense of customer care.

About four years ago, Abuelo’s Mexican Restaurants installed table-top tablets. The Ziosk devices allow customers to order drinks, appetizers, and desserts without a server. They include games for kids and empower customers to settle their bill whenever they please, without waiting for a ticket or handing over a credit card. 

“We did not cut the number of servers because you still need to order the entrées from the server,” says Bob Lin, president of the Texas-based chain. “And with our restaurants, there’s so much customization we allow our guests, it’d be impossible to do it through a tablet. We think of ourselves as a casual-plus, so having those touchpoints with the guests is very important.” 

Table-top ordering represents just one step the chain has taken to integrate technology across the operation. It might seem that such products fit best in limited-service restaurants, where value, speed, and convenience are the main drivers. But Lin says full-service restaurants can find success going high-tech, too. And they can do it without sacrificing hospitality—an important differentiator for the full-service segment. 

In fact, Lin believes some technology can improve the human element of service. Abuelo’s table-top devices allow staff to spend more time with customers; servers are freed up from running to the table with the check, back to the POS station, and then back to the table. 

“That stuff just kind of goes away,” Lin says. “There are always those occasions where the guest is frustrated because they’re ready to go and they can’t find the person to ring them out. It’s a lose-lose situation where we’re not turning the table as fast as we can and the customer is dissatisfied.”

Lin says customers have met the change in stride, and they can still order and pay directly with a server if they choose. It’s a key consideration for those guests who are uncomfortable with or opposed to technology.

The Ziosk system also upgraded customer satisfaction surveys with the questionnaire prompt on the tablet. Previously, the process relied on enticing customers with coupons or freebies to call in or visit a website to offer feedback. Although Abuelo’s offers no customer incentives with the new tablet-based surveys, the response rate has been higher. Plus, the system delivers granular results, down to a specific employee or a recurring issue.

“If an employee’s consistently getting low marks in a particular area, then we can counsel the employee,” Lin says. “Or, if an employee is getting superior ratings at every interaction, then there are things we can do to reward the employee. It’s very actionable data that we’re getting.”

As technology continues to reshape the industry—with transformational tools ranging from employee-scheduling systems to inventory management programs to digital ordering devices—full-service restaurants are increasingly rolling out customer-facing innovations that mirror those sweeping across their limited-service counterparts.

But technology can sometimes go too far. TouchBistro founder and CEO Alex Barrotti pointed to a restaurant that invested deeply in table-top hologram technology that projected a virtual server in front of diners. The gizmo had little utilitarian purpose and, he says, that restaurant ultimately failed. 

“If you implement technology for the sake of technology, I think it’s always the wrong approach,” he says. “Technology should solve a problem or an issue.”

TouchBistro offers its POS system on iPads, which can be used like traditional mounted systems. Or, servers can take the devices tableside—an option that about 10 percent of customers choose. 

Some restaurants are still wary of customers balking at the iPads on the table. Others worry that servers will struggle to make eye contact, thus compromising their service. But Barrotti says most fears are unwarranted.

“I never see that,” Barrotti says. “It takes less time to tap on one item than to write down ‘chicken primavera’ or ‘chicken parmesan.’ … A lot of these are misconceptions or stigmas that aren’t really happening in the real world.”

On the iPad, TouchBistro’s app portrays each diner as a different colored chair around the table. Servers enter orders directly by tapping the chair images, which simplifies the bill-splitting process. It also speeds up service since orders for drinks or appetizers are transmitted instantly to the kitchen or bar, even as the server is still moving around a table. The system can decrease errors by avoiding penmanship issues. And it automatically prompts questions about side dishes or meat temperatures, avoiding those awkward trips back to the table. 

“There are less errors. There’s no transcribing at all. You’re taking the order right from the customer’s mouth and putting it into the computer,” says Brian Leonardi, co-owner of Baltimore’s Ristorante Firenze. The upscale Italian restaurant has used TouchBistro’s tableside option since it opened three years ago. “To most of the public now, the presence of an iPad is not that bizarre. Everybody has them. In fact, just about every child that comes in has one.”

He adds that his only concern was the longevity of the devices. After all, tablets were not designed to be commercial-grade, which could make them vulnerable in foodservice environments. 

Durable cases and a few replacement tablets over the years have assuaged those fears. While Leonardi believes the tablets make the operation more efficient, they are no replacement for great customer service. All the basics—smiling, eye contact, and treating customers well—still apply. 

“This certainly does not replace human interaction,” he says. “The fact that they have a tablet in their hand versus a piece of paper in their hand, to me, is trivial.”

The digital solution, though, did come with one drawback, Leonardi says. The restaurant has avoided the pay-at-the-table option. Instead, it delivers checks in the traditional fashion; they’re printed at a station and left at a table, rather than swiped on the iPad at the table. 

The reason? Leonardi says the tipping process becomes awkward when the server is standing right there.

Still, on the whole Firenze says staff and customers alike have adapted to the technology well. So well that he can’t understand why so few sit-down restaurants have made similar moves.

“I think it’s still fairly rare, and I’m surprised by that,” he says. “I think the concerns are overblown. And our experience is that we basically get zero pushback.”