At first glance, it's easy to come to the conclusion that the Ziosk tablet heralds the end of table service jobs. After all, these faceless waiters can take your food and drink orders at any time you like, they can offer you today's specials and upsell you, they can take your payment and tips – heck, they can even entertain your kids or post a group photo to Facebook for you. So what's left for your friendly, fleshy, human wait staff to do? More of what they're best at, as it turns out.
Dallas-based Ziosk has emerged as the runaway market leader in e-menu implementation in the United States. Claiming a 95% market share, Ziosk's tablets are now deployed in more than 1500 restaurants across America, including all Chilis and Olive Garden locations.
The concept is pretty simple – instead of waiting for your waiter to come by, you use a small 7-inch, networked Android tablet to order at your leisure. Feel like a drink? Put a supplementary drink order in at any time. Menus are always up to date with the latest items and photos, specials can be rolled out instantly across entire restaurant chains.
The tablets are also equipped with encrypted payment facilities, allowing customers to pay at the table whenever they like. As a diner, you don't need to catch your server's attention to order or pay any more.
The benefits for restaurant owners are huge – when people don't need to wait for busy staff to put their orders in, the wheels of commerce are greased considerably. Tables can get in and out up to five or ten minutes quicker than usual. When an extra round of drinks is just a touch away, people order more, boosting Per Person Average (PPA) takings, and many locations are reporting a big boost in dessert sales – whether it's because the sticky date pudding has been staring moistly at diners all through main course, or because people don't have to confess their sweet, treacly, shameful desires to a human waiter.
And it doesn't stop there. According to Ziosk, users are over 10 times more likely to sign up to loyalty programs and 30 times more likely fill out customer experience surveys. The tablets help promote the restaurant by taking group selfies and posting them to social media for you, complete with "check-ins." And the tablets keep restless kids (and adults) occupied with 99-cent "premium content" video games and trivia quizzes – many designed to involve everyone at the table and fire up conversations.
To make it even more of a no-brainer for restaurant chain owners, Ziosk operates on a deal that costs a restaurant owner less than nothing to implement. The company takes its monthly subscription fees out of premium content sales, and then works on a 50/50 cut for further premium content above and beyond that mark.
It appears to be working well, and the model is growing steadily across the US. But what's surprising is that waiting staff, whose jobs would ostensibly seem to be under threat here, are seeing the benefits of the technology as well. Freed from much of the lug work of writing and relaying orders, and ferrying cash or credit cards around, they're able to deal with more tables and spend more time chatting and building relationships with customers. There's fewer ordering mix-ups, and customers tend to be happier since they're much more in control of the timing.
So the average server is dealing with more tables full of happier people - and the payment system makes automatic tip suggestions. The result? Many servers are reporting a boost in tips. This may be a rare case of a win-win-win technology.
Or it may not. Chains will likely work out exactly how many extra tables their wait staff can handle with a Ziosk or similar system on board, and cut down on jobs in response. Not a big deal for a single restaurant, but something like Olive Garden represents more than 800 restaurants across America. A change in policy might affect thousands of jobs. This kind of thing is likely to gather steam as customers become better trained to do more of the work themselves, like they have with self-service supermarkets and petrol stations.
And it doesn't take much to imagine this kind of thing being rolled in with robot waiter technology sometime in the future, to the point where a restaurant could begin to operate on a skeleton human front-of-house staff. There will always be smaller restaurants offering a more human experience, but when big chains go automatic, there's a far greater chance to affect the employment landscape. Still, it's hard to argue Ziosk and its competitors aren't smoothing some sharp edges off the casual dining experience.
Now, for god's sake, let's start deploying this thing in bars and nightclubs so we can get a drink without having to fight for elbow room on some sticky counter.
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