Turning the Tables

Table-side tablets offer restaurants more efficiency, customer data

The next time you’re dining out, don’t be surprised to find a computer tablet sitting at the table and your server acting as its instruction manual.

Letting customers order food, pay their bills and provide feedback through table-side tablets is a quickly evolving trend in large chain restaurants. Restaurants such as Chili’s, Applebee’s, Olive Garden and Pizzeria Uno are adding this technology to improve efficiency and customer satisfaction, and better hear the voice of their customers.

Applebee’s rolled out 100,000 tablets nationwide in the last two years.1 Chili’s installed units in 823 locations,2 and last April, Olive Garden announced it would add table-side tablets to 800 of its restaurants.3 Fast-casual restaurants (no full-table service offered) also are jumping on the bandwagon. Panera is upgrading 100 locations with tablet kiosks.

Each of the restaurant chains reported more efficient operations and more dollars spent per order. Tablets reduced the average time customers spent at tables by 10 minutes.4 Because diners can pay at their tables, they’re avoiding the dreaded wait time between handing servers their credit cards and having them returned with a receipt. Receipts printed at tables or sent via email significantly reduce the time servers spend bouncing among tables. The faster a restaurant can turn its tables—move customers in and out—the higher its profits. 

In addition to the time factor, Panera’s table-side tablets resulted in fewer order errors, and customer orders were $5 higher than average. At Chili’s, without a wait for menus, tablets increased impulse orders 20%, especially when photos of appetizers were displayed.5 Dessert orders at Pizzeria Uno increased 30%, most likely because of the visual display. It’s also possible customers don’t feel they are being judged by a server for ordering dessert after eating a large meal.6

Servers are experiencing profits, too. Because customers are ordering more food, wait staff’s tips have averaged 15% more than normal, but this also could be attributed to some tablets’ tip calculators automatically being set to 20% when they first appear on the screen.7

"These things have helped our customers expedite and control their experience more, which in turn is good for our business," said Wyman Roberts, chief executive of Brinker International, the business that operates Chili’s.

Customers can opt to order through their servers, but most choose the tablet. Some restaurants reported that between 70 and 80% of customers were ordering on the tablets, perhaps reflecting a trend toward customers flexing their independence at some retailers: A 2013 global survey conducted by Cisco found 52% of consumers prefer self-checkout at retailers, and 61% are willing to shop in a completely automated store.8 Today, 80% of millennials expect improved technology like this at restaurants.9  

"Today, they’re novelties—but long term, everyone’s going to deploy them, and deploying them is just going to become the standard," said Vladimir Edelman, chief development officer for tablet entertainment supplier Buzztime.10

Slicing and dicing data

The devices also are providing restaurants huge volumes of customer feedback, ordering patterns and data that can be used to streamline service operations. The information is being made available almost immediately. When customers pay at their tables, a brief survey appears as soon as the receipt is printed or emailed.

This type of immediate consumer feedback was previously hard to come by for restaurants, and they’ve typically relied on printed receipts to prompt customers to complete online surveys at home, yielding 1% response rates.11 Chili’s reported 25% of its customers completed the tablet surveys. "We can see patterns of where consumers are having or not having a good experience," Roberts said.

The survey feedback also tracks a server’s performance. Some Pizzeria Uno locations post servers’ scores in the kitchen daily, highlighting those who need improvement and allowing managers to watch employees’ long-term trends.12    

Roberts explained that Chili’s expects to use the data to address staffing needs for busier shifts, adjust kitchen teams that perform best according to satisfaction trends and gain an edge over competitors.13

The surveys are designed to ask questions that are specific to diners’ orders, such as how they felt about an appetizer or dessert. This data can be automatically sent to restaurants in weekly or monthly reports, allowing them to monitor consumption patterns, better manage their supply chains and take advantage of marketing opportunities.14

The data mining goes even deeper. Restaurants can track customers’ interactions with the tablets, such as click paths and promotions sent during visits.

"We wanted to use a big data tool so we could look at textual information and other data types and formats that tell us what people are seeing, what they’re clicking on and how much time they’re spending on the device," said Kevin Mowry, chief software architect for Ziosk, the designer of Olive Garden and Chili’s tablets.15

What kind of actionable information is being pulled from this ocean of information? Ziosk discovered guests who order drinks within five minutes of being seated are the most likely customers to order a game on the tablet. Games cost $1 to play, and the revenue is split evenly between Ziosk and the restaurant. The tablets can be updated with pre-scripted triggers to promote the game after beverages are ordered.16

The tablet triggers can be game changers for a restaurant’s business, but some experts believe adding technology to a service-driven industry could alienate some customers. "Although it will provide convenience, at the same time it will cause a disconnect because you will cut out a part of the middleman experience," said Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides, a food and health trends forecasting organization. "Until it becomes the standard, it runs the risk of making the consumer feel intimidated and awkward."17

Staffing and quality

Chili’s needed to overcome cultural challenges in training its staff to act more as technical advisers to guests who need help with the tablets.18 For Panera, the cost of training and upgrading a location to what it calls Panera 2.0—which allows customers to place orders through tablet kisoks located near cashiers or their smartphones—is roughly $155,000.19 Olive Garden, Chili’s and Pizzeria Uno use tablets created by Ziosk, which charges only subscription fees.

Proponents of table-side tablets don’t want to eliminate or minimize the server’s role. They believe servers are being given more time to focus on customers by adding efficiency through technology.20 Despite being armed with more time, overwhelming customer data and increased profits, a restaurant’s success still boils down to one thing—quality.

"From the customer perspective, the ability of the restaurant to deliver on food quality, service and other attributes remains equally as important as the availability of technology," said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research at the National Restaurant Association.21

—compiled by Tyler Gaskill, contributing editor


  1. Matt McCue, "Most Innovative Companies 2015," Fastcompany.com, http://tinyurl.com/upsellingmachine.
  2. Christian Brazil Bautista, "Your Next Applebee’s or Chili’s Waiter May Be an Android Tablet," Digitaltrends.com, http://tinyurl.com/nextwaiter.
  3. Tom DiChristopher, "Ziosk Seeks to Transform Casual Dining With Tablets," CNBC.com, www.cnbc.com/id/102585566.
  4. Stacey Vanek Smith, "Computer Tablets Take Over Part of Restaurant Server’s Job," NPR.org, http://tinyurl.com/nprtabserver.
  5. Venessa Wong, "That Tablet on the Restaurant Table Will Make You Spend More," Bloomberg.com, http://tinyurl.com/tabletspending.
  6. Smith, "Computer Tablets Take Over Part of Restaurant Server’s Job," see reference 4.
  7. Wong, "That Tablet on the Restaurant Table Will Make You Spend More," see reference 5.
  8. Mike Lavigne, "Panera Bread Digitizes Customer Experiences With Self-Service Kiosks & Mobile Ordering," Centricdigital.com, http://tinyurl.com/paneratablet.
  9. Bruce Horovitz, "Applebee’s to Serve Tablets at Every Table," USA Today, Dec. 2, 2013, http://tinyurl.com/usapplebees.
  10. Lisa R. Melsted, "Tabletop Tablet Service—Coming to a Restaurant Near You," Forbes, Feb. 11, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/tabletoptablet.
  11. "The Ziosk Tablet," www.ziosk.com.
  12. Wong, "That Tablet on the Restaurant Table Will Make You Spend More," see reference 5.
  13. Clint Boulton, "Chili’s Tablets Dine on Data to Boost Service," Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/wsjchilistablet.
  14. Melsted, "Tabletop Tablet Service—Coming to a Restaurant Near You," see reference 10.
  15. Doug Henschen, "Microsoft Azure Services Power Ziosk Dining Experience," Information Week, March 30, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/microsoftdining.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Julie Tortora, "Tonight’s Menu Special: Tablets," Foxnews.com, http://tinyurl.com/menutablets.
  18. Boulton, "Chili’s Tablets Dine on Data to Boost Service," see reference 13.
  19. Rick Aristotle Munarriz, "Panera Turns On Tech to Heat Up Its Stale Business," Dailyfinance.com, http://tinyurl.com/paneratech.
  20. Melsted, "Tabletop Tablet Service—Coming to a Restaurant Near You," see reference 10.
  21. Steve Nicastro, "Tabletop Tech Boosts Restaurant Efficiency, Customer Security," Nerdwallet.com, http://tinyurl.com/ncwsze2.

Additional Resource

  • Strom, Stephanie, "Hi, I’m a Tablet. I’ll Be Your Waiter Tonight," New York Times, June 20, 2014.


In the QP feature article "Change in Flow" (June 2015, pp. 38-46), Universal Oil Products was mentioned as one of Ambitech Engineering Corp.’s clients. The client’s proper name is UOP (A Honeywell Company).

Who’s Who in Q

NAME: Stephanie Thompson.

RESIDENCE: Scottsdale, AZ.

EDUCATION: Master’s degree in technology management from
Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe.

INTRODUCTION TO QUALITY: During her last semester as an undergraduate at ASU, Thompson took a course on process improvement where she was introduced to lean Six Sigma and the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Thompson said it changed her life forever, and the subject matter resonated with her like no other topic had before.

CURRENT JOB: Quality manager at CampCorp Structures in Surprise, AZ.

PREVIOUS JOBS: Owned and operated an American Kennel Club-registered kennel where she bred and trained champion Neapolitan Mastiffs for shows. In one incident, she nearly lost her arm in a dog attack, a traumatic event that ultimately changed her outlook on life in a positive way.

ASQ ACTIVITIES: Vice chair of ASQ’s Phoenix Section; vice chair of students for ASQ’s Quality Management Division; member of Diversity and Inclusion "WE" Welcoming Environment; member of Section Affairs Council and Division Affairs Council; founded the ASQ student branch—called "Quality Devils"—at ASU; secretary of Human Development and Leadership Division from 2012-2014.

OTHER ACTIVITIES/ACHIEVEMENTS: Treasurer of New Vision Toastmasters. ASQ-certified quality auditor. Works with and mentors ASU students to identify and create opportunities to execute lean Six Sigma projects in local businesses.

RECENT HONORS: Member of the board of examiners for Southwest Alliance for Excellence, a state quality award in Arizona based on the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence.

FAVORITE WAYS TO RELAX: Getting massages and visiting the spa; traveling, seeing and experiencing new places and cultures, especially on family vacations.

QUALITY QUOTE: "Embrace the magic of quality and transcend!"


ASQ, APQC Continue Quality Research

ASQ is partnering with the American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC) to build on the 2013 Global State of Quality Research, and they need your help.

The Global State of Quality 2 Research will build on themes and topics identified in the study, including quality in business strategy, barriers and challenges to quality, and the role of the customer in quality and operations. Ultimately, the new research aims to provide vital benchmark data to assist quality professionals and business leaders in comparing and improving their quality and continuous improvement programs.

Your participation in the effort will lead to a better understanding of quality strengths and opportunities worldwide and provide a holistic view of the global state of quality. Visit apqc.org/ASQ_GSQ_2_Survey to participate.

Findings from the report will be released at next year’s ASQ World Conference on Quality and Improvement in May 2016 in Milwaukee. ASQ members will have access to the final research report and all spotlight reports. To learn more about the project, visit www.globalstateofquality.org.


Study Outlines Opportunities for Auto Industry Players

Automotive original equipment manufacturers and suppliers estimate they could save $3.5 billion if complexities and redundancies in quality management system (QMS) requirements were reduced, according to a new study.

The white paper, conducted by the Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG) and Deloitte Consulting LLP, concluded that while the current state of quality is the best it’s ever been, significant opportunities for improvement exist within QMSs.

The study identified the top five issues challenging automakers in their efforts to achieve greater efficiencies in the industry’s quality systems, standards and practices:

  1. QMS requirements.
  2. Problem solving.
  3. Customer-specific requirements.
  4. Product development.
  5. Loss of experience.

"Our industry has made phenomenal progress in the quality and reliability of the vehicles we produce," said J. Scot Sharland, AIAG’s executive director. "But while the industry has deployed very robust processes and supplemented them with great tools, it needs to accelerate basic knowledge transfer throughout its global supply chain and make a renewed, focused and industrywide commitment to use the tools properly and follow the processes developed."

The white paper, titled "Quality 2020," is based on a survey of and extensive interviews with automakers and tier-one suppliers. It can be downloaded at no cost at http://go.aiag.org/quality-2020-report.


Plans Heat Up for November Celebration

Organizers are finalizing activities that will shape the sixth-annual World Quality Month, which takes place in November.

Included in the plans is an updated World Quality Month website, www.worldqualitymonth.com, which will feature four new videos and other videos produced in past years.

The site also will have a new celebration guide posted that will include an event-planning timeline and plenty of ideas for organizations to use to mark the month-long occasion.

In the coming weeks, check out the website for updates on an upcoming social media contest and ways to submit your own events and success stories. A social media toolkit also will be available in five languages this year: Arabic, Chinese, English, Portuguese and Spanish.


Reader Input Needed for QP Feature Article

For an upcoming feature as part of World Quality Month celebrations later this year, QP editors want to take a lighthearted look at how quality has been portrayed in popular culture—TV shows, novels, songs or movies—over the years.

We need help your help identifying these examples. Remember the troubles Lucy and Ethel faced on the assembly line at the chocolate factory? What about Creed, the director responsible for the quality of paper products on "The Office" who failed to perform his audits?

Send any funny, quirky or geeky examples of where you’ve spotted quality mentioned (or implied) in mainstream books, movies, TV shows or songs.

Be creative with your examples, and be sure to have some fun with what you’re describing. Visit www.asq.org/pop-culture-form and follow the link to the submission form before Aug. 31.

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