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Interactivity on the Menu for Culinary Industry

Interactive restaurant menus — it sounds very George Jetson. Walk into a restaurant. Sit down at your table. Push a button. And — voila! — there’s your meal.

But what was cartoon fantasy in 1962 is reality in 2010, thanks to touch-screen technology.

Given the pervasiveness of technology — from automatic teller machines to iPhone apps — it might not surprise some to hear that touching a button at your table and sending an order back to the kitchen could be the next chapter for touch-screens.

“Younger consumers are expressing interest in automated restaurant services, from online ordering for delivery to tabletop ordering and payment options,” says Annika Stensson, spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association. “Interactive menus may not be right for every type of restaurant, but for those with a more casual or family-oriented theme, they can enhance the dining experience.”

Touch-screen menu boards are already present in company cafeterias, fast food restaurants, and sports bars. Mid-Atlantic convenience chain Sheetz makes its touch-screen menu a prominent feature of the store’s made-to-order menu of sandwiches and salads.

“There's no need to scream over the counter to get Mild Pepper Rings on your sub. ... Just press a button,” the company’s website touts. “It's quick, easy, helps ensure the accuracy of your order and prevents others from knowing your strange eating habits.”

The self-ordering technology allows for up-to-date menus, with added information.

“It is an especially good idea if you add nutritional information about each dish, including the ingredients for people who have allergies,” says Claude Cevasco, Food and Beverage Instructor from The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Las Vegas.

Interactive menus are also helpful for those that might have trouble communicating with wait staff, such as deaf customers or non-English speakers, Cevasco says.

From the restaurant perspective, linking order-taking with point-of-sale and inventory systems through technology can be a time-saver and organizational tool, says Stensson. Servers can then focus on service rather than running orders. And if an item is out of stock, the system will either notify customers or remove it from the menu of options.

A handful of smaller tech companies and private software firms, such as ADUSA and eMenuboard, are jumping into the market while the concept is starting to pop in some higher end establishments.

In London’s trendy Soho district, inamo restaurant offers Oriental fusion, including a set pre-theater dinner, that can be ordered via an illustrated food and drink menu projected on the table surface. Customers also can set their table ambience, discover the local neighborhood, and even order a taxi home, according to the restaurant.

Inamo’s team has trade-marked the technology as E-Table and is licensing the hardware and software.

The pitch from the company’s website: “As well as creating a unique aesthetic quality and ambience, the E-Table interactive ordering system can provide improved efficiency in dealing with customers (potentially leading to reduced staff costs), faster turnaround of covers, and a higher than expected customer spend.”

In New York, the wine bar at Adour in the St. Regis Hotel features an interactive bar surface. The interactive projection technology allows customers to choose a wine and learn about its origin, varietal, producer, and tasting notes without leaving their stools. The technology is also available in the restaurant’s wine vaults.

And in Chicago, Touch Interactive Bar makes the touch-screen tables, powered by Touch Taste Technologies, a main feature of the bar’s bottle service.

It remains to be seen if the trend will take hold. And the wait staff at white-tablecloth establishments shouldn’t be expecting pink slips any time soon.

The waiter is still an integral part of the restaurant experience, says Ken Celmer, Assistant Department Chair for Culinary Arts at The Art Institute of Atlanta. People still want that classic service element, that human contact and greeting.

“Guest today need to be taken care of,” Cevasco says. “They need to be pampered in order for them to get the maximum experience.”

And that interaction with a waiter — one with a great attitude, knowledge about the menu, and passion for service — is the only way to build a good repeat customer, Cevasco says.

Stensson, of the restaurant association, says the interactive menus should not be seen as a replacement for wait staff, but just as one tool in the customer service toolbox.

“Restaurants are all about hospitality and service,” she says, “and the type of menu or ordering-system they use is an extension of that.”

So, can you expect to see a robot serving your chateaubriand? Not any time soon, according to Cevasco.

The technology focus right now is elsewhere, at least in Vegas.

“The new trends in Las Vegas are the toilets and washrooms in restaurants. You do not touch anything. Everything is laser system, even the water,” Cevasco says. “And guests love it.”

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