“Hello, I will be your personal server this morning!” — iPad in a café

Janani Sridhar
Jan 10, 2019 · 5 min read

This past week, on January 2nd I had to fly back from Toronto to my home in Singapore. With all the New Year celebrations spilling over to 3 AM on to the 2nd, I decided to finish my packing and get my travel documents ready after getting some sleep. While the packing was quick and easy, finding my documents was a struggle and I spent nearly an hour searching for them before I found them under my niece’s bed. I was running late for my flight and rushed to the airport to keep up with my record of catching every single flight.

I was hungry and was desperately in need of a phone charge. I reached my gate which instead of a row of chairs, had a cozy gate-side seating café called Heirloom that had plugs at every seat, and to my elation it had an extensive wine collection, in addition to great vegan, superfood and “detox” salads, and healthy options which were right up my alley! It has an innovative way of ordering that you might have experienced in some restaurants — Facing each seat is an iPad that lets you browse and select your food and drink to order, after which you use the card machine near it to either pay and tip prior to getting your order (which makes things work faster because you don’t have to wait for a bill, but makes it unusual to pay and tip even before you eat, specifically in a dine-in café/restaurant setting), or you pay and tip after getting your order (which probably might end up in you waiting longer, if only by any chance you were expecting a personal server to come with a bill the conventional way), and elect to print a receipt.

While being nimble with technology and keeping up with the digital trends gets the lion’s share of importance, customer-facing innovation with a touch of personalization is key to staying ahead of the competition.

In Heirloom’s case, my experience had a personal touch as compared to other tablet driven ordering and payment cafes which typically lacked the customer-facing element — I had a person to take me to my seat, ask me to order using the iPad and any preferences or restrictions I had. From a diner’s perspective, I found the design and interface to be intuitive and fun, and was reminded of a Pinterest board.

While I was eating my salad and sipping on my Cabernet, the iPad streamed Instagram worthy pictures of pastries and desserts. Now that I could simultaneously eat and watch the menu and did not have to call and wait for a server to take my order, I turned out to be self- “upselling” myself by ordering the apple maple cinnamon scone, more than what I should have! The cookies looked good too and so I ordered them for the flight before I really thought about it and just ended up “home shopping”.

Besides making digital orders and payments, the iPad lets you browse online, maps, use your social media and email accounts, access news and entertainment apps and play games that were installed (which can come handy if you are travelling with a toddler!), check on your flight information, including the status, and the weather at your final destination. However you can’t just download “Temple Run”, “Candy Crush” or any other app because the UI is locked.

From a marketing and operations perspective, the iPad system encourages digital payments, faster table turnarounds and hence enhanced customer experience and revenues, and upselling. Digital menus can be updated on the fly on all devices seamlessly with just one-time change in the main system. There is no chance of an order mess-up because there is no human to mess-up the order, unless the person who orders messes it up! By eliminating human errors, this system demonstrates how getting a right order can save and boost money.

Picture Credits: backformenladen.eu

From a data and analytics perspective, the restaurant/café may collect order and sales data by time of the day, month, and the season, by the price, type of order, and so on. This data can be used to understand patterns in orders, and answer business questions like — Are desserts being most likely bought with a salad? Which category contributes most towards my orders? Are many number of orders of low price driving my profitability, or is my profitability driven by few orders of high price? What is the distribution of food orders in a typical day? And so on.

From a User Experience perspective, the iPad could suggest wine and beer combinations with food. While most restaurants have a recommendation engine in place that suggests food and drinks, the recommendation engine can be made more accurate by gathering information from a post-meal survey regarding their preferences and feedback, which can be used with the order data.

From a psychological perspective, tablets get customers to buy more because of two reasons — One, the “Self-Order-and-Pay”, and the “Order-while-you-Eat” model is not only fast, but is autonomous, removing the involvement of waiters except for bringing the food. Two, the delectable pictures of desserts and drinks flashing on the iPad grabs customers’ attention and makes it easier for them to place orders without having to wait for or approach a waiter — avoiding any potential sheepishness that may come along especially after having an intensely flavored garlic and onion delicacy.

Although many might perceive this trend as warning signs to servers and waiters about losing their jobs, I perceive this as making the appropriate use of technology for better experience. It only modifies their job to allocate their time more towards delivering excellent food and service, and making themselves available, instead of taking orders and bills.


Observations, thoughts and learnings from experiences.

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