Channel Insider content and product recommendations are editorially independent. We may make money when you click on links to our partners. Learn More.

I had heard somewhere that the Olive Garden or Applebee’s (doesn’t really matter) revolutionized “fine dining” by obliterating the concept of “seatings,” the time period that restaurateurs would plan to serve the bulk of their customers. By turning tables over rapidly through fast food service, such eateries replaced fine dining with “casual dining.” In the process, they changed diners perceptions of what service should be. 

It doesn’t really matter if that story is true. The reality is that the days when people would meet for a leisurely dinner that would last an entire evening are long gone. The expectation is quick seating, quick service and quick payment. Diners get annoyed (and you know who you are) when their waiter, food or check isn’t immediately available (actually, that’s me).

Integrated wireless systems have the potential to change that.

Handheld devices and table-side computing integrated with ordering and payment systems are finally making their way into the mainstream restaurant and hospitality business. The technology can make restaurants more efficient, and also create a better dining experience for customers and a competitive advantage for the eateries adopting the systems.

Recently, Motorola rolled out the virtual red carpet for analysts and press at City Winery, a trendy establishment in Manhattan’s Meat Packing district. Over a luncheon of crafted salads and moderately priced wine, the Motorola team talked about the channel opportunities in the hospitality industry. The location was not random; City Winery is a consumer of Motorola products and customer of a Motorola partner, Leebro Systems.

City Winery wait staff carried Motorola wireless handheld devices that had quick reference menus. Diners’ orders were transparently transferred to the kitchen for preparation. When the order was ready, a signal was sent to the waiter to pickup and deliver food to the table. And, when the meal was complete, the waiter could process a credit card payment tableside.

The system eliminates the need for waiters to go to kiosks around the restaurant to place orders and process payments, saving time – and time equals money.

According to Motorola’s 2009 Enterprise Mobility Barometer report, 60 percent of hospitality businesses view wireless mobility technology as a tool that could give them a competitive advantage. Hospitality and restaurateurs see such systems as a means for increasing employee productivity, customer satisfaction, revenue and general efficiency.

The potential of mobility in restaurants and hospitality is boundless. The same system that took my order tableside is expandable, in theory, to reservation systems, remote order placements, online event planning, inventory tracking and automated supply chain management. Imagine arriving at a crowded restaurant where you don’t have a reservation. With a fully integrated, customer-facing wireless system, you could do a couple of things: review the menu and place an advance order through the wireless system so your food will be ready when you’re seated. Or, you could search for a nearby restaurant that has tables available.

Restaurants have started using tableside processing in marketing. Consumer concerns about identity theft are driving chains such as Ruby Tuesdays to promote tableside credit card processing as market differentiator. Waiters swiping cards by the table have no chance to steal carbon receipts (at the truly Luddite eateries) or copy credit card information.  

A similar system, Microsoft Surface, has different potential uses. The touch-enabled tabletop computer could recognize individual drinks on the table with RFID chips in glasses. At the end of a gathering, people gathered at the table can more easily calculate and divide costs. And payment could be rendered as simply as placing a credit card on the unit and having the embedded chip charged for the individual’s amount.

According to the Motorola survey, restaurants using such systems report a 43 percent increase in customer satisfaction and 27 percent increase in the average per-person sales.

Mobility and automation solutions have the potential for revolutionizing the way restaurants and other service-oriented businesses conduct their operations and interact with customers. More than one-half of restaurateurs surveyed said they expect wireless ordering and reservation systems will transform their businesses for the better. Many restaurateurs already envision a day when tableside ordering and payments extend to customer loyalty programs and social networking communities.

The optimism and interest in mobile systems for hospitality is particularly good news for solution providers—particularly on the local level. Solution providers can partner with mobile platform vendors and their application ISV ecosystems to create dynamic infrastructures that enable the integrated, automated dining experience. Good technology will translate into customer satisfaction as good food and service do today. That’s the foundation of a competitive differentiator for a restaurant.

This is an evolving market and channel opportunity. While hospitality mobility systems have the potential of creating more operational efficiencies, cost and ROI remain an inhibitor. City Winery, for instance, is a 26,000-square-foot facility, but only has four mobile units for its wait staff. The owner of Brooklyn Bowl, who was also attending the Motorola luncheon, said that he hasn’t fully equipped this staff because of costs and budget constraints. You could make an argument that these units are worth the investment, but only 3 percent of the hospitality business surveyed by Motorola reported in increase in revenue and sales as a result of the mobility systems.

This paradox of the promise of efficiency gains and higher revenues vs. high cost of acquisition and implementation is true of any new system or technology implementation. As adoption rates increase, costs will come down and sales will grow exponentially. Alongside that adoption curve will come support services that will make them as indispensible as a line cook to a restaurant.


Lawrence M. Walsh is vice president and group publisher of Channel Insider. Read his research reports at [CI] Perspectives.

>> Click Here to Follow Larry on Twitter

>> Click Here to be Larry’s Facebook Friend

>> Click Here to Link Up with Larry on Facebook