Welcome to Applebee's. My Name Is Tablet. May I Take Your Order?

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An Applebee's casual dining restaurant.
Alamy
Waiting for someone to take your restaurant order or trying to flag somebody down to get your check at the end of a meal is about to become so 2013 at Applebee's.

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.

It also improves customers' perception about the length of the dining experience. If coworkers are debating where to go to grab a quick lunch, Applebee's suddenly becomes a more viable option alongside the "fast casual" chains like Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) and Panera Bread (PNRA) that have been growing in popularity.

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.

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149 Comments

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Wealth Builder

When I go to a restaurant with wait staff it is because I want to relax and be served. I tip for that privilege. When I want fast, I go through drive through. I'm not too old to remember when it was about quality instead of just speed.

December 17 2013 at 5:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
legalay

ITS NOT COOL AT ALL.... REPLACING A HUMAN WITH A TABLET IS NOT FAIR FOR THAT ONE PERSON OR PERSONS WHO WILL BE JOBLESS. TABLETS WILL NOT MAKE YOU FEEL WELCOME, TABLETS WILL NOT GREET YOU WITH A SMILE.. TABLETS IS A BAD IDEA.
IT WILL ONLY BENEFIT THE FOOD CHAIN INDUSTRIES AND TAKE AWAY FROM HUMANS WHO NEED WORK... I WOULD BOYCOTT TIL THE END & SABOTAGE EVERY EQUIPMENT...
OHH AND BY THE WAY?.... I OWN A FOOD BUSINESS AS WELL.. I ENJOY SERVING MY PATRONS, I LOVE INTERACTING WITH THEM & MOST OF ALL I LIKE IT WHEN THEY SAY THANK YOU WITH GREAT SINCERE AFTER ENJOYING A GREAT MEAL.

December 13 2013 at 8:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Kent

My library installed self-checkout kiosks in the library, and most people, including myself, really like it. There were times that I walked into the library and saw a line, so I would have to come back to pick up a book on hold, if I was in a hurry. Now, I can find the book on the "Hold" shelf and check myself out.

And no, there hasn't been any lay-offs. People still need to talk to a clerk about fines, renewing a library card, or dealing with a book that's RFID is being balky.

December 13 2013 at 2:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
usapaydirt

Push the button and give us your money concept, eliminating the human element and will liklly become short if you ask for a real person. And with Huff Post now requiring a Facebook account to post comments, there will be no more visiting there either. One is eliminating jobs and the other being intrusive and thus limiting opinion ......

December 13 2013 at 1:24 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Richard

Love it; all we really need are the runners to bring the food from the kitchen. Not really sure what most servers did except take the order (often incorrectly) type it into a computer (we can all do that ourselves) and then bring us the bill. And for that I had to tip 15 to 20% of the bill?

December 13 2013 at 1:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ivyteainn

These lousy restaurant chains are trying to cut costs by removing the need for servers. The maggots pay their servers peanuts, yet they will eliminate their jobs before a CEO making millions for doing nothing. When Applebees implements this, I will never eat at their establishment again..

December 13 2013 at 12:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Bill

Probably not an accident that this technology is coming about at the same time there is a lot of talk of raising the minimum wage.

December 13 2013 at 11:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
suec8

Our family only uses cash for restaurant purchases. How do they run the cash through the ipad?
The notion that "everybody loves tablets" is crazy. I know many people who hate tablets. My husband and each got the latest Samsung tablets in October and after about 2 weeks went back to our laptops in disgust.
Tablet ordering and payment would make me less likely, not more likely, to chose Applebees over another restaurant.

December 13 2013 at 10:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
KeyLemPi

Haven't seen an Applebys with a line in years! They don't really need to speed up table turn around times because they're never full. Ever since they changed their menu about 8 years ago (think Tequila Lime Chicken - the smaller breasts vs Fiesta Lime Chicken with bigger breasts that ALWAYS come out cooked medium - pink in the center, not well done as they should be) they've been spiraling. I won't even touch chicken that's pink in the center... sorry but there are too many food warnings about that. Having Chris Berman as a spokesman also keeps me away.. I want nothing to do with anything that moron is involved with.

December 13 2013 at 10:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
cobaltmuscle

Actually, I patronized a place called "Stacked", They use the ipads for taking orders. They offer to have order taken by server or order via ipad. They have a full staff and it really is nice convenience. You can order your drinks and not need to wait for a server. Place is packed, food was good. I thought the same about human replacement, however, I did not see that in this establishment. Try it, you might like it!

December 13 2013 at 10:30 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply