Chili’s Balances Human Interaction and Technology

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Cheers Blog

I was at a local Chili’s for dinner the other night for the first time in over a year, and was surprised to find a tablet-like device sitting on every table. Apparently the chain has installed nearly 50,000 of these Ziosk table-side tablets at more than 800 locations since March. It only took the hostess about 15 seconds to explain the basics on how to use the tablet: you can use it to re-order drinks, order dessert, pay your bill, and play games and apps (most games are a $0.99 fee).

During the meal, the device also displays ads (that night I must have seen a Justin Timberlake-themed Sauza Tequila ad about 100 times). It also contains the entire drink and dessert menu for easy reference. What it doesn’t do is take appetizer or entree orders, or orders for a first round of drinks – for that you still need a server. Chili’s is very clear in all of its marketing that the devices are not meant to replace waitstaff or cut down on labor costs (although industry experts say there’s no reason the device couldn’t replace waitstaff from a technological standpoint).

The biggest benefit to the restaurant seem to be faster service, and quicker table turnover as a result. For guests, the benefits include faster drink orders and not waiting as long for the bill-paying portion of the meal.

I used the Ziosk to re-order a mango margarita, which demonstrated one of the drawbacks of the device. The idea is that when a guest orders a drink, a light on the top of the Ziosk turns blue, which indicates to a waiter or waitress that they should pick up a drink at the bar. Unfortunately, it only stays illuminated for a few minutes. Since I was there on a slow night, my waitress didn’t notice the blue light before it went off. When she came by a few minutes later to ask if I wanted another drink, I had to tell her I’d already ordered one through the tablet.

She apologized and added that problems like that happen all the time – since a receipt at the bar only prints “Ziosk” as the customer name, the bartenders have no way to tell which server needs to pick up the drink. She did say that if a drink sits at the bar too long the bartender will bring it to the table number listed on the receipt themselves, but it seems like the drink ordering process could definitely be improved.

In contrast, the checkout experience was great all-around. I was able to pay my bill right at the table – it accepted a gift card for partial payment and a credit card for the rest, it allowed me to choose my own tip amount, and it printed out a receipt. When a customer has checked out, a light on the device turns red, alerting waitstaff that they’re not walking out without paying. Since I often get annoyed at how long it takes to bring the check and pay for a meal out, this was a huge benefit for me.

Also on the plus side, my waitress said donations to St. Jude’s have increased exponentially since the Ziosks were installed – rather than asking guests when they get the check whether they’d like to donate, the tablet allows diners to donate at any time during the meal. She also said dessert orders have increased, since guests can order right after the meal without waiting for a server to come and ask if they’d like anything for dessert.

From what I’ve read about Ziosk, now that they’ve proven the concept with Chili’s the next step is to move into standalone bars. Do you think this type of self-service device would work in your establishment? Would you ever consider installing one?

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