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Hi, I’m a tablet. I’ll be your waiter tonight

Roberts of Chili’s said about a fourth of the customers answered a survey about their experience, providing feedback.

By: New York Times | Published: July 12, 2014 11:53:03 pm
footloose A customer who has a coupon can opt to switch on a camera that will read it, or use the camera to upload a photo to Facebook or Pinterest.

An idea came to Ronald M Shaich, chief executive of Panera Bread, as he was driving his children to school in Braintree, Massachusetts, about four years ago: What if everyone could order lunch the way he did?

The Shaich household’s morning routine included a call to the manager of the nearest Panera location to order lunch for Shaich’s son (Asian sesame chicken salad with half the normal amount of chicken and twice the won ton strips) and daughter (various salads, but with dressing on the side).

The family then hopped in the car, stopping on the way to pick up the lunches. “It suddenly occurred to me that this was a wonderful system for the CEO, but what about the 8 million people who order from Panera?” Shaich said.

“Everyone else got in line to get to the register, then got in another line where they had to play a game called Go Find Your Food,” he said. “For drinks, they had to go to another line, and if they wanted any kind of espresso, we sent them to a fourth line.”
So, the corporate chieftain who had once declared that “the food business is not a technology business” has spent $42 million to update Panera. “The goal is to eliminate friction points,” Shaich said, “because if customers have a better experience, it will help our business.”

Restaurants have been late to the tech party, and many are now scrambling to incorporate tablets, apps, computerised kitchen equipment and data analysis capabilities. Applebee’s is trying out online ordering, and in Asia, McDonald’s has been testing what it calls the Happy Table, an interactive table that “plays” with children using mobile devices.

Chili’s Grill & Bar has added computerised ovens that use conveyor belts, infrared technology and hot air to prepare food — at a cost of $100,000 per oven — in each of its 1,200 restaurants. Together with tableside tablets that allow customers to reorder desserts and alcoholic drinks as well as pay their bills and play games without the help of a waiter, new technology has helped Chili’s address one of its customers’ biggest complaints —slow service — and add higher-margin items to its menu.

“These things have helped our customers control their experience more, which in turn is good for our business,” said Wyman Roberts, chief executive of Brinker International, which operates Chili’s and Maggiano’s Little Italy.

Chili’s has teamed up with Ziosk, a company that offers a small tablet with a menu, ordering options, games and a payment system. Austen Mulinder, chief executive at Ziosk, says roughly 20 million transactions a month take place over their system.

Roberts of Chili’s said about a fourth of the customers answered a survey about their experience, providing feedback. The system is so sophisticated that it can ask different questions to customers based on their orders, soliciting opinions on a new special or dessert item. A customer who has a coupon can opt to switch on a camera that will read it, or use the camera to upload a photo to Facebook or Pinterest.

Chili’s pays Ziosk a monthly service fee, but if enough customers opt to pay to play games on the system — trivia is the most popular game — it can make that money back under a revenue-sharing agreement.

Similarly, Panera has found its investment in kitchen technology as beneficial. Colour-coded screens deliver orders to the staff: A red stripe over an ingredient means leave it off, a green stripe indicates an addition. Other colours signify takeout.

Customers can add or subtract ingredients, save preferences, swipe cards and move on to pick up meals. “Most of us are creatures of habit; we order the same thing,” said Hope Neiman, chief marketing officer at Tillster, which built technology programmes for Chili’s, Taco Bell and Subway.

Panera’s customers also can order directly from their tables, using their mobile phones. Those meals can be delivered to the table, eliminating the lines that concerned Shaich.

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