Using iPads For Restaurant Ordering is Often a Bad Idea by Mike in Tokyo Rogers

On the last day of 2011, the family went to our favorite sushi restaurant located in Isehara. Isehara is an hour away from our home by car so we get to go to this restaurant about twice a year when visiting my wife’s parents. The place is delicious.

Even though this sushi-ya easily sits about 150 people, it is almost always packed. If you go there for dinner, as we often do, you’d better get there before 5:15 or you can expect to have to wait for an hour or more to be seated. After 6:30 pm until 9 pm? Don’t even bother. We did that once. Never again.

We get there early or we don’t go.

On New Year’s Eve, we arrived just at opening time and comfortably sat down. I expected a massive rush of folks to enter the restaurant soon after; like has happened every year for the past 5 or 6 years. But it didn’t happen. In fact, when we left the restaurant there were several empty tables and no one was waiting to be seated.

“What happened?” I thought. “What has changed?” The food was just as delicious and just as reasonably priced as before, but something was different.

I thought about it. It was readily recognizable upon entry to the restaurant. It seemed the place had lost some of its zip, “freshness” and vitality… It wasn’t the same talkative and friendly shop as before.

Why? How could that have happened? The staff were all the same so management didn’t change. What could it be?

After thinking about it for a moment, I concluded that it was point-of-sale iPad devices on all the tables for the purpose of allowing customers to place their own orders. I think this was the key (and a huge mistake) in destroying atmosphere and the good feeling one gets when experiencing a restaurant that relies heavily on human interaction like a sushi shop does.

With the rise of the Internet and the bursting on the scene of the iPad and few years ago and the copy-cats that have all followed, many businesses look to this sort of technology to save them in times of an aching economy. I think far too many businesses are making a huge mistake and looking for love in all the wrong places.

If you are considering using an iPad or like technology to increase your businesses profitability then I strongly suggest that you first always consider this point: It’s awful hard to beat a pencil and paper. Is using technology going to be faster and more beneficial to your business?

I think, in many cases I’ve seen, it is actually a detriment.

In many cases, far too many to be sure, using an iPad to allow customers input their own orders, especially in the case of better restaurants is a very bad idea. Here’s why….

Think about this: is your restaurant the type of business that is highly dependent on communicating with customers? If it is, then iPad point of sale software is not for you.

Fujimaru in Isehara. Food is great. Ordering system not.

Here’s a good example: Take a Denny’s-type of restaurant. It is cheap and the menu doesn’t, nor is it expected to, change often. People often go to Denny’s to burn up time, read a book or to drink coffee while completing some work. They are not there to talk with the waitress. Compare that with a good sushi restaurant whose menu might change daily depending on the catch of the day or one that has a friendly chef who knows the value of talking to customers and communicating. How valuable is it when a customer can ask, “What do you recommend?” The sushi chef smiles and replies….

Also, as I mentioned, is communication important between your restaurant staff and customers? If you have a bar-type of establishment where people, often alone by themselves, come up to the bar to sit and order, then this type of iPad ordering is definitely not for you. Whenever I go this type of establishment, I go there for fun, conversation and comfort. I want to talk to the bartender (or sushi chef or head waiter) who I probably know and have a friendly relationship with (in the case of drinkers this would be called, a “brotherhood” or “confidant”).

Think about that. Drinks are basically the same from one establishment to another. What makes one bar better than the other? (They used to call sushi restaurants “sushi bars”). In the example of drinks, the difference is ambiance and the bartender and staff. In the case of sushi, I might want to ask the sushi chef what he recommends as the freshest for the day.

The use of an iPad sort of device for customers to place their own orders at a restaurant must definitely serve to better the user/customer experience at the restaurant. It must also speed the process up, not slow it down. Think about that also, at a fine French or Italian restaurant, would you think the customer would be happy with tapping on an iPad to order? What about showing off to the friend or girlfriend that this customer is a regular and knows the staff by name? Using a iPad for ordering at a Denny’s or McDonald’s? Probably a resounding, “Yes!” Cordon Bleu or a “Top 50 restaurant in New York City?” Absolutely Not!

No matter how much I love iPad, they would never enhance the experience at a top class restaurant. Also, the utter idea that people can play games online while waiting for their dish to come to their table is absurd, unless, of course, as I said, you are targeting a lower income (and single) audience. I seriously doubt that if I were on a date, I’d take a girl to a place where, while waiting for drinks or food, we’d be playing some online games.

What a awful date and terrible experience that would be.

Communicating with a sushi chef is fun. Why degrade the experience?

That’s the key word here: Experience. If the placement of iPad point of sale menu ordering device does nothing to damage the experience, then I think they might be a good idea (I said, ‘might’) but when a service organization (keyword: service) implements this sort of device and makes their ‘service’ less personal and colder, they are making a big mistake.

Finally, as I thought about all these things as we were about to get up from the table to leave the sushi restaurant, I (like I usually do) thought, “I’d like to have just one more sushi for the road.” I looked at the iPad and thought, “Forget it. Too much trouble.” Think about this one too. The sushi chef is standing five feet away from me on my left. If I say, “Maguro kudasai!” (Tuna, please!) that takes about 0.5 seconds. If I have to use the iPad for ordering (which he asked me to do) I have to pick it up; tap food menu; find sushi; rolls or nigiri? Then I have to tap the order… By the way, I like extra wasabi, but can’t find where that is located on the iPad? I’ve spent 6 seconds tapping and trying to find what I want to order. Do I order the last one for the road? Nope.

I’ll bet many people have thought the same thing. How much money in sales did that establishment lose from people just like me who thought the same thing?…”I want an extra order, but the hassle isn’t worth it for one. Forget it.” And I even own an iPad and am pretty well versed in using one. But that doesn’t matter, it’s not the iPod exactly that’s the problem, it’s the software too and a huge menu that Christopher Columbus couldn’t find on a map!!! Think about that! Especially at a restaurant (like a fine restaurant or sushi shop) that is not cheap and has a large portion of their customers near 55-years-old or older… An audience who has the disposable money to spend on some of the finer things… Older people of which most have never touched an iPad in their life. Will they make that last minute compulsive/impulsive order? I don’t think so… Heck, it’s a hassle and they can’t figure out how to do it.

It takes 0.5 seconds to make a verbal order. Using the iPad takes time (and patience)… Not a pleasant experience. It’s a hassle.

You’ve got a serious problem if people think ordering your product is a hassle.

As an aside, nearly 10% of the US population has compulsive buying complex Oniomania (for better or worse). I’m sure the Japanese are just as bad if not worse… If you are a business owner (and not a psychiatrist) then you need all the sales you can get. Using devices that suppress compulsive or impulse buying or ordering (especially when people are drinking and having fun) seems foolish to me. But, like I said, there might be good applications, it’s just that I am not intelligent enough to see them, I suppose.

Here’s how I calculate it: If one plate of sushi costs $3; And some part timer gets paid $8 an hour; and the restaurant has 150 seats and turns them over once every 1.5 hours; and, say, 15 (10%) of those people might have impulsively bought one last plate of sushi, then I don’t see how utilizing this iPad ordering device saves me any money in lowering labor costs. I just lost $37 every 1.5 hours. Of course, this is a very rough estimate but I think estimates and judgements like this are very important.

As I walked out the door and looked at the empty tables, I wondered if the customers who used to come to this restaurant went to another shop? Another shop where they can talk and interact the old fashioned way (when it comes to food when is the “old fashioned way” not the best way?) better with someone who smiles at them and communicates with them so that they don’t have to feel so lonely; they can have more and fun… Conversation with a waiter or waitress or chef can also be a very fun and beneficial thing.

What’s the price tag on warmth, communication and laughter? Of course, with the iPad ordering, at this shop, there are still waiters and chefs and you can talk to them. But when I wanted to order, they hurried by and said,

“Please place your order using the ordering device on the table.” What’s the cost of that?

Thanks, but no thanks. I noticed that I felt a little betrayed and uncared for. Here we knew these sushi chefs and waiters, for years, yet they told us every time to order using the iPads….  I did talk with one of the waiters who knows us well and even he alluded to much staff dissatisfaction with the new rules on ordering.

In my case, the experience was lowered. My wife concurred. In the case of my in-laws (in their 70′s) they didn’t like it at all. My eight year old son thought it was cool… Too bad he is not the one who pays for the food.

Romantic? Good atmosphere? Stylish? You be the judge

I think, in the case of a sushi shop, if they are going to use this type of device to take orders for sushi, then they might as well have robots making the sushi too.

Remember that it is hard to beat a pencil and paper for speed and human communication is priceless and irreplaceable. iPads are awesome devices when used for what they were designed for. I can’t see how using an iPad for ordering at a restaurant that has a constantly changing menu or several dozen (even one hundred) items on the menu can enhance the user (customer) experience. If there are many items on the menu, it makes navigating the menu difficult. Imagine what it does to a first time customer? I think it makes sure they are not repeat customers.

I might be able to see the benefits if the restaurant only has a dozen or two items on the menu… But, then again, if the restaurant only has a few dozen items to order, why bother?

I think restaurateurs need to think long and hard about putting this kind of technology in their restaurants. Generally speaking, I can’t see how it cuts costs or increases profits.

Placing a square peg in a round hole has never been a good idea. Use the right tools for the right job.