By Michael Patrick McSweeney (@mpmcsweeney)
The waiter is, for most patrons, the cornerstone of any restaurant experience. It’s the waiter who points out daily specials, brings drinks, shares a story or two and, in the end, facilitates payment between the consumer and the restaurant for the meal.
E La Carte, a commercial technology developer from Palo Alto, seeks to fundamentally alter this age-old restaurant experience with Presto, a specialized tablet that allows customers to browse menus, add select items to their initial order, play games and make payments – all without ever leaving the table or talking to a waiter. The company just announced a major deal with Applebee’s, yes, that Applebee’s, that will see 100,000 Prestos deployed by the end of 2014.
While the idea of using tablets in restaurants isn’t exactly new, what’s different is the scale of E La Carte’s deal with the Applebee’s chain, and that a restaurant that caters to an aging crowd like Applebee’s would decide to make this kind of foward-thinking investment.
E La Carte, founded in 2009, has spent the past several years honing its product and fine-tuning the ways in which customers can use Presto as a foundation for their dining experience. The Applebee’s deal is the culmination of a years-long process that, bit by bit, could result in substantial changes in the ways restaurants approach the customer relationship.
The Origins Of Presto
Started as a conceptual project at MIT, Presto soon grew to attract some serious investors, including executives from Apple’s and Intel. Earlier this year, E La Carte raised $13.5 million Series B funding from Intel Capital and Romulus Capital. The company has received more than $17 million in funding since 2010.
E La Carte has been working with Applebee’s since 2011 on a Presto pilot program.
According to TechCrunch, 30 restaurants participated in the program and the results were positive. Overall table turn times fell and payment processing quickened. Surveys distributed to customers who used the Presto came back with good reviews. Many noted that they had an overall better customer experience, as they didn’t have to wait for their check to arrive.
Since the pilot launched, E La Carte has made structural improvements to Presto, giving it a sturdier frame, a liquid-resistant screen and a more durable card reader system. The tablet also features Bluetooth and NFC chips that will allow future versions to handle mobile wallet and mobile phone payments.
Restaurant Payments, Not Wait Staff, May Evolve
Critics of E La Carte charge that Presto will put wait staffs out of business. For example, Forbes staff writer Alex Konrad posed this line of questioning in an email to Mike Archer, the chain’s president, who disagreed with the notion that Presto will result in reduced employee numbers.
"Very clearly, our intention is not to replace servers, who provide a personal connection that is invaluable in our restaurants and to our ‘See You Tomorrow’ experience,” Archer said. “This is about building on to the experience for the guest, not saving on labor.”
Instead of allowing customers to create an entire order and then transmit it themselves to the kitchen, Presto is programmed so that patrons can only additional items to an order that has already been processed. This restricts any marginalization of the waiter that might occur.
During the Applebee’s pilot, customers responded positively to the customizability of their experience. The restaurant chain reported an average 10 percent sales to participating restaurants, thanks to the constant upsell reminders it provided on the table. Instead of having to await the server’s advice on which dessert item to buy, customers can bring up a dish on their tablet and pay for it right there.
It remains to be seen how a large-scale Presto deployment will impact performance at participating Applebee’s. However, table-based POS systems should learn from the self-service checkout’s mistakes. Also heralded as a technology that would reduce entry-level employment opportunities, self-service checkouts have proven costly to maintain and unreliable over continued use.
For more on consumer sentiment toward self-service checkouts, read our full report here.