Today’s Consumer Wants High-Speed Everything. What’s a Full-Service or Fast Casual Restaurant to Do?

Consumer “need it now” demand is spurring customer service innovation at companies eager to win the race against time. It’s why Amazon offers same-day delivery in 30 metro areas across America, up from 12 areas in 2015 – and why instant customer support via live online chat is preferred by consumers over phone or email.[1]

No one wants to wait. Yet, waiting is a fact of life in foodservice.

Even the largest fast food chains have an average wait time of 3 minutes.[2] So double-digit wait times at fast casual and full-service restaurants can test even the most patient patron. Fast casual chains like Panera have responded with order-ahead options for takeaway. But for dine-in customers at any venue – there will be waiting. The good news for both restaurant operators and wait-weary guests is the rise in handheld tablet technology.

There are a handful of companies now offering digital, touchscreen tablets for use by guests in restaurants. Features and functionality vary by company, but the overall effect is a perspective shift. Wait time is no longer viewed as wasted time, it’s an opportunity to create value for guests and restaurant operations. With the average restaurant visit clocking in at 46 minutes, just 16 minutes is perceived as valuable to the guest. The other 30 minutes are spent waiting for a table, the food, and the bill. Now, tablet tech is transforming the wait – from burden to benefit. Here’s how:


1) Customers Are Out of Line…and Loving It

Picture this: you’ve got a half hour to grab lunch. You walk to the new deli with the 5-star Yelp reviews, see a dozen people in line – and leave. Even though you would have received your sandwich and a seat in 5 minutes, you perceived a long wait. Business was lost because perception is reality. Contrary to what many fast casual restauranteurs believe, long lines don’t just scream “this place is great,” it’s also “this place has a wait.” And long waits keep people away.

To manage the fine line between appearing briskly busy but not overly crowded, fast casual restaurants are deploying handheld tablets. When patrons walk in during peak times, they’re invited to grab a tablet – and a seat. From the tablet, guests can browse a digital menu, place an order, and even securely pay. Once the order is placed, the tablet automatically displays a number. Depending on the tablet configuration – restaurant staff can either deliver meals to the table, or the patron can watch for their number to begin flashing on the tablet screen indicating their order is up.

Not only does this “sit and order” tablet system foster a relaxed ambience that draws more customers through the door, it drives up customer satisfaction. Guests feel like VIPs with the privilege and power to avoid the hassle of standing in line. Skipping the line and sitting down to order makes a fast casual visit feel full-service. With “sit and order” tablet tech, guests perceive more value in their visit, even though actual wait times are not reduced.


2) From Wait Time to Play Time


Select tablet tech companies are reinventing wait time by transforming it into play time. Tablets turn into virtual arcades, loaded with dozens of games and even trivia challenges. It’s a true tromp l’oeil as time appears to fly when guests are having fun! With 64 percent of Americans owning a smartphone,[3] one might assume they would turn to their own device for entertainment. But given the option, guests go for the thrill of a tablet gaming challenge. Some tablet companies even integrate gyroscopes into their tablets so players can “steer” virtual cars or explore new digital worlds at the turn of a tablet. Guests simply can’t get the same level of realistic gaming action on their smartphones.

The advanced, high-quality suite of tablet games actually becomes a draw for restaurants that offer them. Guests will seek out restaurants with on-tablet entertainment. At this point, tablet gaming has transcended the wait time issue. It doesn’t just solve a problem, it provides opportunity to attract new guests and increase the satisfaction of existing patrons.

In fact, tablet gaming offers yet another benefit for guests: Wait time becomes social time. Select tablet companies offer an interactive experience so guests can compete on trivia challenges or card games with other patrons in the venue – or even across venues nationwide. Bars and pubs are the big winners here, as interactive tablet gaming enhances the sense of community for guests: sports fans looking for something more than a place to watch the game or singles eager for an ice breaker (how about a friendly game of trivia?). Tablets can even become virtual scorecards for live hosted trivia night events.

For parents, restaurants that can turn wait time to play time with handheld games are an even bigger draw. Today’s children are tech savvy and demand digital entertainment beyond a pack of crayons and a placemat. If parents can entertain their children with a kid-friendly game on a durable tablet, the restaurant becomes more than a place to eat. It’s a place mom and dad can unwind while their kids are engaged in age appropriate games.

Select tablet tech companies provide both free and premium paid games on tablets, giving operators the chance to offer the value of free gaming or drive up incremental profits through paid games. Be wary of tablets that come pre-loaded with games and exist as standalone devices. The leading companies offer tablets that are configured to wirelessly communicate with a central on-site computer hub. From that hub, new games can be instantly added onto tablets.


3) On-Tablet, On-Demand Ordering Worth the “Wait” in Gold

Time can slow down for hungry guests waiting for a server to take their order. But when tablets are enabled with digital menu technology, guests can place instant orders in just a few clicks on a touchscreen tablet – sending their order straight to the kitchen. Meals arrive faster, and guests are happier because their food is exactly how they ordered it.

While browsing a restaurant menu isn’t exactly wait time, tablet technology enhances the experience for guests. Most tablet technology companies include software that streamlines the buildout of a digital menu. Some companies even include photo-rich displays and interfaces build to highlight key menu items. The result for guests is an exciting, retail-style menu ordering experience that feels like online shopping. Just like selecting the size, color, and pattern of a shirt, guests can customize their burger in a few clicks to include extras like smoked bacon, blue cheese, and fried onions. The benefit of this retail-driven approach for restaurants is higher check averages, as guests are shown options they weren’t even aware of. That $7.99 burger just became a deluxe $11.99 burger.

As opposed to paper menus which servers pick up after ordering, unobtrusive tablets are meant to stay on the table throughout the meal – and can even be used for payment (see next section). Without adding clutter, tablets invite at-whim ordering as customers order drink refills, extra sides, and desserts whenever they’re ready. Some tablets even provide recommendations to guests based on trending menu items – or suggest new items, just like a digital version of a restaurant’s best server.


4) Check Please…PLEASE! Customers Want Restaurants to “Pay” Attention


Waiting for the check can feel like an eternity for guests who are ready to leave. It’s also a major pain point for servers. Drop off the check too soon; guests feel rushed. Wait too long and guests feel ignored. That’s why many full-service restaurants are turning to tablets for fast, secure guest-guided checkout. Guest demand for tableside checkout is rising rapidly as it becomes more prevalent: 63 percent of diners are embracing it, up from 48 percent in 2015.[4]

With tablet payment, guests call the shots. They can pay instantly and directly on the tablet. Bill splitting isn’t an issue, as most tablets allow for instant check splitting by menu items or by even amounts. This is also a welcome innovation for stressed out servers trying to accommodate complicated requests for bill splits.

When it comes to payment method, tablet tech varies. Most tablets come equipped with standard card readers and even EMV chip readers. Some companies even support Smartphone enabled NFC payments (Near Field Communications) such as ApplePay and SamsungPay which appeals to tech savvy diners. The best tablet technology seamlessly integrates with a restaurant’s existing POS system, allowing for a smooth transition to tablet checkout.

Restaurants offering on-tablet checkout have reported an increase in operational efficiency and a reduction in labor costs, as servers are freed up to cover more tables – faster. Restaurants are also seeing an uptick in open tables as guests move through meals faster when they can check out and pay on their time. Servers appreciate the opportunity for larger tips because many tablets can be configured with pre-set tip amounts – making it harder for guests to leave a single digit percentage tip.

Restaurants that are deploying tablet tech for checkout realize that the payment process is the last impression a guest has of their experience, so they’re on a mission to make it a good one.


5) Tablet Technology Fast Tracks Loyalty: Builds Stronger Bonds with Customers, Quicker

Restaurant guests take great pride in being considered a “regular.” But it can take a few months of frequent visits before servers start remembering guest preferences: that they like their steak medium rare or avoid gluten. Instead, tablet technology can build an instant bond between restaurant and guest by creating a preferences profile. When guests return, the tablet remembers their previous visit and builds upon it: suggesting similar dishes or pulling up a previous order for easy, instant reordering.

Many tablet companies also integrate with popular loyalty and reward programs. Where previously servers would take a guest’s loyalty card, run it through the POS, and return with a points update – now it’s all done automatically on tablet. On the tablet interface, guests can see how many more loyalty points they need to gain a reward, which drives up spending.


The Wait is Over: Technology Has Caught Up with Customer Demands

With tablets in hand, guests are redefining their dining experience. Waiting for a table is a chance to play an on-tablet game or browse a photo-rich interactive menu. Waiting to checkout becomes a choice as guests can pay and tip on their time, on their tablets. Tablet technology is rapidly disrupting the guest experience – for the better. Instead of wasted time, wait time becomes an opportunity for restaurants to enhance customer loyalty, satisfaction, and value perception.