The casual dining chain will have tablets at every table by the end of 2014, allowing customers to order from the touchscreen menu and swipe their credit cards to settle up after they're done.
This is no small task. Applebee's parent DineEquity (DIN) is ordering 100,000 tablets for its eateries. Traditionalists looking for a more conventional dining experience are always welcome to lean on the wait staff to place their orders or pay up at the end, but the technology will be there for those who want to use it.
Everybody Loves Tablets
Applebee's move should pay off in several ways.
For starters, eliminating the time it takes to flag down wait staff for orders or checks will help turn tables faster. That's huge for restaurants with a limited number of seats during peak dining periods. Customers will benefit from the shorter waits, and the restaurant won't have to worry about losing patrons who head elsewhere if the wait's too long.
There's also the "fun" factor. If Applebee's incorporates games and other diversions into the interface it can create a better experience for families. And it's not without precedent. The now defunct uWink in California was letting diners order on touchscreen tablets and play games long before the iPad was even introduced. Most major cities already have a couple of tech-minded indie restaurants using tablets for more than just digitized wine lists.
There's also the potential of cost savings for the restaurant operator, but don't say that too loudly.
Servers Get Served
Automating the ordering and transaction process would seem to open the door for Applebee's to scale back on the number of its employees. At a time when health care reform and the push for restaurant staff to be paid a living wage are making it more expensive to staff a business, cynics will argue that Applebee's push for automation is simply a backdoor move toward a future with fewer servers.
Applebee's says it doesn't see it that way.
"This really isn't a labor play," DineEquity CEO Julia Stewart insisted on CNBC, explaining that every table will still have a food server. "It's not about saving labor. This is really about creating an opportunity to talk to our guest, have an interactive conversation with our guest, and give our guest a lot more opportunities."
The interactions will also naturally help Applebee's to get to know its customers a little better. Can a tablet do a better job of up-selling to newer and higher margin menu items? Will folks using the tablets order more or less than those that do not? Will there be an uptick or a downturn in terms of appetizers, beverages, and desserts added to an order when they can be added throughout the dining experience instead of when a server is nearby? Will electronically placing orders create fewer misunderstandings and errors in the kitchen?
If the answers to any of these questions lead to encouraging metrics, you can expect some rival casual dining chains to follow Applebee's lead.
Now we just need to hammer out the protocol on the appropriate tipping percentage for a tablet-assisted dining experience.
Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread. The Motley Fool owns shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.