Why Tabletop Tablets Can't Replace Servers


Tablets don't offer that personal touch; they do help servers truly focus on customer service

Restaurants across the country have recently begun introducing tablets to their tabletops. In doing so, these businesses are improving the overall casual dining experience for everyone involved—guests, servers, and operators alike—resulting in increased guest satisfaction, more efficient staff, and growing revenues.

The initial thought may be that these tablets will replace servers entirely. It's unfounded, however. In fact, when you take a more in-depth look at the entire dining experience, there are several points that prove the contrary.

First, consider the most important stakeholders, the guests. They have a deep-seated expectation of being greeted and attended to throughout the meal. This will continue to hold true, even when a tablet is on the table.

The point of a tablet is to make the guests' experience in your restaurant flow more smoothly. Sometimes, this means that a guest should use the tablet, but in many instances, it will be faster and easier for him or her to tell the server. For example, a great use for the tabletop tablet would be to quickly pay your bill at the table so you can get back to the office from your lunch break. However, with one tablet allocated per table, it's not convenient or expedient to have a table of four or six place their orders individually through the tablet system. This is especially true when guests are ordering complicated entrees with multiple modifiers. These types of situations are much better served by simple human-to-human communication.

Here's another interaction that only a server can handle: the moment when a guest initially orders an alcoholic drink. A server must be the one to complete this type of order to verify that the recipients of these beverages are indeed of legal drinking age. The myriad variables to weigh in this situation cannot be “convenienced” out by a tablet. (Also, of course, no technology can replace the awkward fun of having all the servers in a restaurant come over and sing “Happy Birthday.”)

Dining out is its own brand of entertainment. The pageantry is part of the allure. Being greeted by a host, being shown to a table, and being waited on by a happy server—these are all expected and valued components of the dining experience that electronics can't even approximate.

Another feature and guest benefit of the self-service tablet is enhanced security. Credit card numbers are particularly vulnerable to identity thieves at restaurants, and restaurants are some of the most common spots for reported incidences of identity theft. The tabletop tablet solves this problem by allowing guests to pay on-demand at the table. Tablets also feature tip calculators, an option to print or email the receipt, and an LED bulb that lights up to indicate the payment has been received.

This not only improves security by ensuring that the credit card never leaves the diner's hand, but also decreases the likelihood of accidentally leaving the card behind or forgetting to take it out of the check presenter.

Guests are never required to use this payment method, however. Some patrons may want to pay the “old-fashioned” way, perhaps with cash. Those guests, of course, will need a server for the transaction.

Restaurant-ready tablets can actually help servers do a better job juggling their customers' needs. They help ensure that servers can spend more quality time with their tables, providing guests a higher level of attention and service. Servers no longer need to run back and forth to the POS so often to print checks, swipe credit cards, and reconcile tips. They have more time to refill those water glasses and replace that fork that was dropped on the floor.

Tabletop tablets can help servers capitalize on the “magic moments” of the dining experience. One of the most challenging decisions as a server at a casual-dining establishment is determining the precise moment to ask a guest whether they'd like another drink. Everyone drinks at their own pace and the server can’t be standing there every second. Tablets on the table provide the perfect back-up to the server's efforts—not to mention how attractive that second drink looks when it's so easy to just push a button and have it brought to you. About to finish that glass of red wine? Need another margarita? Bring up the drink menu, tap for a new glass, and it will arrive soon after.

Tablets have also been impressively effective at improving the wait staff’s take-home pay. Tips have increased an astounding 15 percent at restaurants using these tablets. Patrons who get what they want, when they want it, leave happy; happy patrons order more food and leave better tips.

“My tips jumped. I made more money on every shift and I was able to take more tables,” said Kendra, a server at a tablet-toting restaurant in Northgate, California. Kendra is one of many servers who are grateful for the tablets making their jobs easier—a far cry from rendering their jobs obsolete.

Another benefit is the automatic tip calculator built into these tablets. It defaults to a suggested percentage of 20 percent. The calculation is based on the order total before any deals or discounts are applied, encouraging guests to remember to tip on the regular price of their order. It's a feature servers love.

Owners of casual-dining restaurants and restaurant groups benefit directly from the addition of tabletop tablets. In early-adopter establishments, within 24 months of featuring these tablets at 125 locations, owners saw revenues go up. Quite simply, people were buying more food. Appetizer sales increased by 20 percent, and dessert sales picked up by an impressive 30 percent. Since appetizers and desserts so often go directly to the restaurant's bottom line, these numbers translate into tangible revenue increase. And higher guest checks mean higher tips for servers.

The tablet—and the source of the tablet's basic interface and technology, the almighty smartphone—is becoming a dominating cultural influence across the United States. Americans who own tablet computers now comprise 34 percent of the population, and an incredible 61 percent of Americans own smartphones. These numbers show that the majority of guests won't be put off by finding self-service tablets at their tables when they sit down to eat. Patrons within the ever-growing crowd of tablet and smartphone owners will already be comfortable with the technology. Soon they will expect to see tablets at the table, much like “pay-at-the-pump” is now a presumed option at the gas station.

Tablets are changing the face of casual dining, and it seems certain that they are creating a trend that is here to stay—to the delight of both the restaurant industry and their patrons. Still, it's important to note that restaurant servers are here to stay as well. They are a time-honored, integral part of the dining experience, and now, they have a tool to help them do their jobs even better.

The opinions of contributors are their own. Publication of their writing does not imply endorsement by FSR magazine or Journalistic Inc.

Austen Mulinder

Austen Mulinder is the CEO of Ziosk, the first entertainment, ordering, and pay-at-the-table tablet for the casual-dining restaurant market. Before joining the company in 2007, Mulinder held a variety of positions at Microsoft. As vice president of Operator Channels, he worked in close collaboration with Microsoft's operators, hosters, cable, and media partners in building go-to-market partnerships for phone, TV, PC, and business and consumer cloud. Prior to that, he served as corporate vice president for the Communications Sector, where he led strategy, sales, and marketing of Microsoft services and solutions to telecommunications, hosting, media, and entertainment companies. Mulinder joined the company as vice president for Worldwide Enterprise Sales.


Good article!Some quick thoughts...anything that enhances the experience for the diner is a good thing, anything that improves revenues while enhancing the bottom-line is a good thing, anything that makes your restaurant stickier (not maple syrup on the seats) is a good thing, and providing interactive visuals of your offers, wine list, craft beers, desserts and appetizers is a good thing. Tablets, smartphones are becoming ubiquitous and consumers love to interact with these devices. Tablets won't replace the human touch anymore than computer POS systems did. Essentially, restaurants less than 25 years ago only had black and white menus without any pictures, guest checks were written by hand, payments were mostly cash, and credit card payments were made with embossing machines and multi-part carbon copy forms. Tablets and smartphones will enhance the restaurants functions in many ways, providing visuals, educating guests, entertaining guests, streamlining payment, improving accuracy of orders, and providing restaurant owners with a tool that will help them better manage the guest experience in a way that is beneficial to all. IMO

What I think is more likely to happen is that as tablets handle more of the waiters responsibilities then owners will assign more tables to waiters (rather than having them provide more attention per table). I also can a see a possible customer option of a 'no tip, no waiter' dining event which would be quickly popular. The waiter is the middle man and owners will dictate just how much they're willing to spend on pleasing the customer. When ordering becomes more common place via the tablets then waiters will need to be far less experienced (think McDonalds) which, again is a tempting savings for owners.

Sorry Mike, but you're completely off point. Worked in the serving industry for about 8 years. Since, in most states, servers only make $2.13 an hr, most restaurants will in all actuality over staff the floor to make sure guests are token care off or in case employees don't show up. I've seen that in lower end places like Denny's to medium range places like Outback, Chili's, etc. -- In regards to the "no tip, no waiter" option, how exactly is this going to work? Are they going to keep a soda machine at the table? Are the tablets going to verify that the person ordering alcohol is the same person in the picture ID? Who's going to clean up or bring food to the customers, etc etc. How about if a person is vegetarian, vegan or suffers from food allergies? Any halfway decent server will know how to change an entree to fit the perimeters of what a customer needs. A server isn't going to want to do this job and not make money from doing that job. 

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