CEO Tech Guide

May the Tablet Take Your Order?


May the Tablet Take Your Order?

Photograph by Kathryn Rummel, Courtesy E la Carte

Rajat Suri doesn’t hate waiters. He just hates waiting.

That explains why he crafted the Presto touch-screen tablet, which lets diners peruse menus, order, and pay without ever talking to a server.

Suri demonstrated the gadget over dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant, where the only interaction with waiters came when they delivered the falafel. Presto lets diners order by scrolling through pictures of entrées and pay swiping a card through Presto’s built-in reader. It even offers to split the check any way desired and e-mail the receipt.

“People have been changed by the Internet and expect faster speeds of service and access to information,” Suri says during a meal at Santorini, the first San Francisco restaurant to try his device. “This technology makes it strictly better to attend a restaurant.”

After adapting to online review and reservation websites such as OpenTable (OPEN) and Yelp (YELP) and takeout ordering sites such as Seamless and GrubHub, restaurants are now bringing digital tools in house to transform how people experience sitting down to eat. Decades of dining tradition—waiting to be seated, order, and pay—could be upended by tools like Presto and a slew of new applications for Apple’s (AAPL) iPad tablet.

“Real personalization is knowing how we want to be treated, and that might be complete self-service,” says Adam Sarner, an analyst at Gartner. “With the Internet consumer, convenience is king, and companies are rethinking how to make it easier.”

Suri, 26, dropped out of his PhD program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to start E la Carte in 2008, two years before Apple introduced the iPad. At the time, he had $10,000 in savings and a plan to create a compact computer with a long battery life that could hold up to all the bumps and spills that accompany restaurant meals.

He was testing his prototype and working at restaurants 14 hours a day, living out of a rat-infested apartment in Boston’s Central Square area, and watching his savings dwindle to the double-digits. Then, in the summer of 2010, he lined up a round of funding led by Drew Houston, the founder of Dropbox, as well as Y Combinator, Ron Conway, and Skip Sack, a former director and senior executive at Applebee’s.

Suri has so far raised about $5 million from investors—including $4 million from Lightbank, the venture fund created by Groupon (GRPN) co-founders Eric Lefkofsky and Brad Keywell.

In 2009, Suri introduced his first prototype. Now his company advertises a product with a 20-hour battery that he estimates can make meals about 7 minutes shorter and can encourage diners to spend 10 percent more than they would with old-school menus.

Pictures on the Presto help sell food at Calafia Café, the Palo Alto restaurant founded by Google’s (GOOG) former executive chef and frequented by the late Apple founder Steve Jobs. Servers show customers how to look up pictures of potentially unfamiliar foods, whether crimson quinoa salad or tofu lentil loaf, says Ivy Chesser, events coordinator at the café. “A lot of people are starting to become familiar with using them and come in for them,” Chesser says.

E la Carte has its competitors—the iPad and restaurant operators chief among them. T.G.I. Fridays, which runs a chain of more than 900 casual restaurants, recently introduced a smartphone app that diners can use to order food and pay for meals using iPhones or devices powered by Google’s Android operating system.

About 125 point-of-sale apps for restaurants are now available for download in Google’s Android store for mobile devices. Similar apps are available for iPads and iPhones. Fast-food chains such as Domino’s Pizza and Carl’s Jr. have started to use ordering kiosks made by EMN8 that keep track of a customer’s preferences for the next time they come.

At Vapiano, a chain of 70 Italian restaurants that’s headquartered in Germany, patrons get data cards they can bring to separate stations and tap to record prices as chefs make personalized pasta, salad, pizza,or drinks. The hostess scans the data card to charge people as they leave.

Gregor Gerlach, president and founder of Vapiano, says the biggest challenge using tablets in restaurants is troubleshooting. Restaurants are packed with tech-savvy employees who can quickly fix computer malfunctions.

Years ago, Burger King tried EMN8′s kiosks and didn’t view the technology as worth the investment, says Jonathan Fitzpatrick, Burger King’s chief brand operations officer. Burger King is now using EMN8′s mobile and online ordering system to test home delivery in Washington, D.C.

Then there’s the issue of the customers themselves, who may be tempted to steal tablets or may claim they lost the data card storing their bill. “Restaurants are figuring these things out, and it will take some time before it really works,” Gerlach says.

At Santorini on a recent weeknight, a pair of friends played a quiz game on the tablet to pass the time before their food arrived. Nearby, though, a family ordered off laminated menus, ignoring the flashing “ORDER HERE” on the tabletop tablet.

Impatience and curiosity will win over most diners, Suri says. Once they see how easy it is to get the food and get out the door, people will want to use Presto.

“Everyone asks why we want waiters to lose their jobs, but it’s not about that,” Suri says. “It’s just about creating the best experience, and this is the right thing for the customer.”

Frier is a reporter for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.

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