From seating to ordering to paying the bill, electronic advances are changing the restaurant experience

By Pam George  |  Photographs by Scott Nathan
From the April 2017 issue

culinarycoastAPR2017 Culinary Coast: High Tech Is on the Menu  - Delaware Beach LifeMenus in hand, the diners at The Backyard in Milton were ready to place their order. The server, however, kept her gaze on her iPad. “I wish she would stop playing games on that thing and take our order,” one of the diners said indignantly to her companion. The server replied: “But ma’am, I am taking your order!” The Backyard uses iPad-based software — not paper — for that very purpose.

Like The Backyard, many coastal eateries rely on some form of technology to do business. There are text-message loyalty programs, table-management platforms and digital menu boards that change with the touch of a key. But even with such advantages, there are some tasks that coastal restaurants prefer to handle the old-fashioned way.

May I take your name?

By now, most frequent diners are aware of OpenTable, a national restaurant-reservation platform they can access online or via a mobile app. Hari Cameron’s fine-dining restaurant, a(MUSE.) in Rehoboth Beach, is a member.

Other programs manage walk-in traffic. Big Fish Grill, which does not take reservations, uses technology to manage its seating. The restaurant, which has locations just outside Rehoboth Beach and in Ocean View, sends a text to diners when a table is ready. This technology replaces the cumbersome devices that flashed and buzzed to alert patrons when their table was available.

And to help hosts and hostesses judge the wait time at any given moment, Big Fish’s software indicates how long tables have been occupied. A red table, for instance, has been out of circulation for an hour or more and will likely turn over soon.

Dogfish Head’s two restaurants, Chesapeake & Maine and Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats, both in downtown Rehoboth Beach, use a tablet to give the table availability app legs. Device in hand, hosts and hostesses walk through the dining rooms to update the tables’ status. And they needn’t be fixed at the podium to take names. “That’s been a good tool,” says Steve McLaine, vice president of “happy customers” for Dogfish Head. “We have what we need in the palm of our hand and walk over to the guest.”

 

May I take your order?

All restaurants rely on point-of-sale systems, which refer to the point at which a transaction is made and processed. In a supermarket, for instance, the system includes the cash register, receipt printer and credit card scanner.

POS systems have become increasingly more sophisticated in restaurants. Before opening The Backyard, owner Ami Rae read an article on systems featuring iPads. She found her program, Lavu, at an industry show in Ocean City, Md. The iPad application has tabs for different menu categories, such as sandwiches and breakfast. “We can modify it, which is really helpful for us,” Rae says. “If you order two eggs, bacon and toast, the kitchen needs to know how you want your eggs and what kind of bread you’d like. Instead of making the servers remember, the system forces them to ask the guest. They can’t move forward in the program until they ask how you’d like your eggs.”

Rae can add steps to the system to make sure the server covers all the bases. For example, Lavu prompts the server to ask if the customer wants ice cream, chocolate sauce or whipped cream on the dessert — at an additional cost. “They have to ask those things to move forward,” Rae says.

She keeps a paper notepad handy so servers can tell her which modifications they would like for a particular dish or category. Then she inputs them into the program. “It takes me moments to add it,” she says.

Giving servers iPads didn’t work for the Big Fish Group, which in addition to the two coastal Big Fish Grill locations owns six other restaurants. The restaurants’ heavy volume all year long hindered the learning curve. To turn over tables efficiently, servers take a collaborative approach: One of them takes orders while others deliver food and bus tables. Big Fish’s menu is so extensive that servers took too long to swipe between categories, which slowed the process, says Eric Sugrue, the managing partner.

Even with paper checks, many restaurants also have stationary touch screens near the bar or in a service area. After memorizing or writing down the order, the server inputs the info at the screen. A paper ticket pops up in the kitchen (as in the photograph on page 80).

Some tech companies sell kitchen monitors to replace the paper tickets. Chefs peer up at the screen to know when to prepare an order. But they’re not practical in the small kitchens so typical along the coast, says Mike Dickinson, vice president of operations for SoDel Concepts, which has nine area restaurants. The company’s chefs prefer the “old-school” paper, he says. Dogfish Head has both, and McLaine says the screens are a resource for the expediters who tell the kitchen when to prepare certain dishes so all the meals at a table are ready at the same time.

Touch-screen kiosks for customer use are becoming common in quick-serve or fast-casual restaurants. Picture McDonald’s or a Wawa deli kiosk. But they aren’t a good fit for every restaurant. They may seem ideal, for example, for grandpa (MAC), which has locations in downtown Rehoboth and on Route 1 near the outlets. The pasta-centric restaurant, owned by Hari and Orion Cameron, lets customers adapt existing dishes or build their own with a choice of ingredients, the usual use for touch-screen kiosks.

However, Hari Cameron says the kiosks aren’t a good fit. “We need people to direct the guest and give a personal experience,” he explains.

The restaurants have digital menu boards, however. “Right now, it is a menu and scrolling logo, but it will be more picture-driven in the future,” Cameron says of the TV-like monitor, which connects via USB to a laptop. Mr. P.’s Wood-Fired Pizzeria in Lewes has a digital menu for its beer selections.

 

The check, please!

Technology is also becoming more refined at the end of the transaction. Sugrue is interested in devices that allow customers to pay their bill by credit card at the table. The diner inserts a debit or credit card into a wireless device and signs, typically with a finger. “We’ve asked our POS company to get this technology,” he says. “They say it’s coming very soon.”

Dickinson believes that some customers will be too leery to enter their card information on a mobile device. “When you see someone walk up to the table with a handheld — that’s essentially like an iPad — with a credit card swipe plugged into the bottom of it, they don’t know 100 percent if it belongs to the restaurant or the server,” he says. He’s also concerned about the cost of implementing the program, keeping track of the devices during shift changes and replacing those that break or go missing. But American consumers may need to change their mindset. McLaine of Dogfish Head notes that in certain European countries, servers are not allowed to touch the credit card. Keeping it in the consumer’s hands is seen as the way to protect the data.

No matter which way you pay the bill, a receipt can build loyalty. At the bottom of Big Fish Group’s restaurant receipts are instructions to text the word “Rewards” to a phone number. After each visit, the guest texts a transaction code on the receipt; the program alerts the user when he or she has enough points for a free menu item. “They don’t have to carry a card. They redeem rewards themselves through the system,” Sugrue says. “We have about 40,000 members now. Overall, they enjoy it.”

 

Business as usual

Point-of-sale systems also aggregate data for sales projections and inventory. With nine restaurants — and a 10th on the way this summer — SoDel’s system, Digital Dining, pulls together information from all the establishments with only a few seconds lag time. Employees with approved passwords can access the information from a remote location.

The Backyard’s program tracks its inventory in real time. Items change color based on the supply. If a brand of bottled beer turns yellow, for instance, servers know they have a limited amount on hand.

All these technologies depend on one thing: Internet access. Big Fish Group has both Comcast and Verizon in case one or the other goes down. The Backyard maintains a landline for old-fashioned credit card processing. SoDel’s system allows restaurants to continue processing credit cards if the overarching system goes offline.

No matter how cutting edge the technology, it’s not a substitute for good service, Dickinson says. “Part of what we offer is the experience,” he explains. “Interaction and communication is crucial from the time the guest walks in to the time the guest walks out. You need to make sure you can show the guests that they are appreciated.”

Pam George, a frequent contributor to Delaware Beach Life, is the author of “First State Plates: Iconic Delaware Restaurants and Recipes.”

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