Expect to see big crowds around the booths where tabletop tablet systems are on display during the National Restaurant Association show next month. Interest among operators is red hot, as chains both established and emerging have gone all in on these devices, which have morphed from interesting gadgets to sophisticated business tools over the last few years. All that’s left to do is make sure customers find tablets as useful as operators hope they’ll be.

Consider the size and scope of the casual dining chains now putting tablet systems in place. Brinker-owned Chili’s expects a full rollout of its Ziosk units to be completed by the end of 2014. Dine Equity’s Applebee’s is on a similar timetable with its tablet program. The chain expects Presto tablets from E la Carte to be available in 1,800 stores by the end of the year. Mongolian barbecue chain Genghis Grill has installed Presto tablets in a handful of stores already and plans to have them in all 110 units soon.

Buffalo Wild Wings has announced that a seven-inch Samsung tablet powered by Buzztime’s BEOND platform will be found on every table at U.S. locations by the end of 2015. Meanwhile, Pizza Hut is testing a touchscreen table system in which the table itself functions as the ordering and payment processing device.  



These big chains are adding tablet technology to existing operations, doing so after extensive testing. But other, smaller players are building their concepts around tabletop tablets from the ground up.

Washington, DC’s Bolt Burger offers customers both touchscreen tablets at its tables and touchscreen kiosks elsewhere in its current location. It promises more restaurant locations and more tablets are on the way. Tampa-based Carmel Cafe & Wine Bar’s proprietary “MenuPad” system allows customers to order and pay via iPads. Carmel Cafe, the brainchild of Outback Steakhouse founder Chris Sullivan, has already grown to six units. Atlanta pizza restaurant Do at the View not only has iPads on its tables; it uses wall-mounted iPads as mirror in its bathrooms.

The business case for tablet implementation is so solid that at least one Wall Street analyst argues that tablets would be one way Darden could revive its Red Lobster and Olive Garden brands by making them more relevant to a younger demographic.

No wonder trend watchers expect the devices to catch on even faster this year.

Consider: The National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot” survey of 1,200 professional chefs last fall found 27 percent of them specifying tablet menus as a hot trend for 2014, ranking them ahead of any other technology.

The momentum seems impressive—until you check what consumers have to say. Most have yet to experience tabletop technology for themselves. Last fall, the NRA released a study that found that while consumers are hungry for technology in restaurants—63 percent had recently used technology options for restaurant dining—only seven percent had placed an order on a touch-screen terminal in a restaurant during the previous month. Forty-six percent said they would do so if it was available.

Earlier this year, foodservice market research firm Datassential released the results of a survey that looked at how operators and consumers use technology in restaurants. For operators, it found that four percent already use tablet-ordering systems, six percent have plans to use them and 26 percent are interested in using them. The numbers for tablet payment system were almost identical. Four percent already use this technology, five percent plan to use it and 25 percent are interested in using it in their restaurants.

Customer numbers were similarly modest. When Datassential asked them if they have used a tablet menu or wine list, eight percent said they had done so, eight percent said they planned to do so and 16 percent were interested in using a tablet for these purposes.

Results like these create a dilemma for those operators contemplating the addition of tabletop tablet technology to their existing concept, or thinking about creating a new concept that incorporates tablets from day one. Right now, some of the sharpest operators around—BW3, Applebee’s, Chili’s, Carmel Cafe—have investigated tabletop tablet technology and decided it can be a huge difference-maker for their restaurants. You could do worse than follow the lead of operators like these.

Yet customers don’t seem to be clamoring for tablets just yet. Single-digit survey results indicate that tablet enthusiasm among customers doesn’t match that of the people who make them or that of the operators who have installed them in their restaurants.

What to do? For operators who want to be ahead of the curve, the time to adopt tablet technology is probably now. For those who don’t want to jump into the tablet game until it’s a sure thing, keep an eye out for the next round of survey results regarding tablet use in restaurants. At the rapid rate this technology is being installed, tablet technology may have more momentum behind it than current research has been able to document.