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Published: Wednesday, 10/12/2011

Restaurants try devices that can do staff's work

LOS ANGELES TIMES
Customers navigate the ordering system on an iPad at Stacked in Torrance, Calif. They choose entrees and sides, select toppings, send orders to the kitchen, and split up the bill without talking to a server. Customers navigate the ordering system on an iPad at Stacked in Torrance, Calif. They choose entrees and sides, select toppings, send orders to the kitchen, and split up the bill without talking to a server.
McT Enlarge

LOS ANGELES -- Pushy waiters and know-it-all sommeliers, step aside. Your days may be numbered.

Tablet computers are starting to take over.

In the past few months, restaurants scattered around the country have installed iPads and other devices with which customers can place orders and perform additional tasks usually handled by staff.

At Stacked in Torrance, Calif., which opened in May, iPads mounted on 60 tables enable customers to flip through a touch screen to view pizza, burger, and salad offerings. Diners may choose entrees and sides, pick out toppings, send their orders to the kitchen, and divvy up the bill, all without talking to a staff person. To pay, customers swipe credit cards through slots built into the iPad holders.

The co-founder of the restaurant, Paul Motenko, said he spent more than a year and $1 million developing the digital ordering system.

It allowed him to open with a smaller-than-average staff. He judges that the hands-on system made customers feel more involved in the process.

Family members choose from the menu at a restaurant in Torrance, Calif. They flip through a touch screen to view the offerings of pizza, burgers, and salad. Family members choose from the menu at a restaurant in Torrance, Calif. They flip through a touch screen to view the offerings of pizza, burgers, and salad.
McT Enlarge

Umami Burger is testing another tablet-based self-service ordering system at its casual sit-down restaurant in Los Angeles.

Fast-food eateries, where ordering is normally done at a counter, would seem a natural for the technology. McDonald's Corp. has installed electronic ordering kiosks in 800 of its restaurants in Europe. It has placed one outside its home base in Chicago, although the chain said it had no immediate plans to install the machines across the United States.

A gourmet pizza restaurant in Atlanta, Do at the View, extends the tablet concept into its restrooms, where instead of mirrors, mounted iPads use their built-in cameras and screens to display customers' images.

"It's all very futuristic, very Star Trek," said co-owner Christian Ruffin. Tablet computers are also used by customers for ordering and for notifying valet parking when they are getting ready to leave.

But what of the human factor, the interaction with a waiter?

L.J. Diener, 36, who dined at Stacked with her mother and two of her children, said she didn't miss it.



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