The game changers: iPads

Tablet technology puts patrons in charge of the eating-out experience

This story is part of an online preview of "The NRN 50: Game Changers.” In this special report, NRN highlights some of the people, ideas, technologies, concepts and trends pushing the restaurant industry in new directions. The full report is available exclusively in the January 23 issue. Subscribe [3] to Nation’s Restaurant News.

When news hit early last year that the new chain concept Stacked: Food Well Built allowed guests to design, order and pay for their meals with tabletop iPads, industry pundits proclaimed the beginning of the end for the old-fashioned printed menu.

It’s just a matter of time before all restaurant menus go digital, some said. Soon, the concept of human table service, as we know it, will forever change, said others. Meanwhile, still others wondered if the move would go down in history as yet another techno-gimmick.

But Stacked isn’t the only chain to use iPads. As tablet technology becomes more affordable, their use in restaurants is rapidly becoming more prevalent — and for a variety of reasons.

Stacked’s founders — who also built the BJ’s Restaurant chain — say the game-changing aspect of iPad service is not, in fact, the technology itself, but simply the appeal of what it allows guests to do: customize.

In the end, Stacked’s customers have embraced the iPad system not because it’s “cool” or simple to use, said Paul Motenko, co-founder of Newport Beach, Calif.-based Stacked Restaurants LLC with partner Jerry Hennessy. 

“It’s because people get exactly what they want,” he said.

At Stacked, 95 percent of guests build their own meals or modify suggested offerings, said Motenko. 

Using the iPads, guests can add or omit ingredients on each burger, pizza or salad. And — unlike most restaurants that charge the same for any cheeseburger, even if you hold the cheese — guests at Stacked only pay for what they specifically order.

Burgers are the most popular category, and a top-seller is the Stack ‘n’ Bleu, an Angus beef patty on a brioche bun with blue cheese, fried onion strings, Applewood-smoked bacon and a balsamic glaze with roasted-shallot mayo for $8.92.

Guests, however, can swap the brioche for a pretzel bun, drop the onion strings and roasted-shallot mayo, and add a fried egg, jalapeños and Sriracha mayo. The price changes, based on ingredients, to a total of $9.82.

Motenko said the challenge was not educating guests about how to use the technology, but learning how to deal with a menu that could be so elaborately customized. For instance, the kitchen staff might receive as many as 60 burger orders at one time, each with very specific ingredient requests. 

Since the first unit opened in Torrance, Calif., last year, Stacked has tweaked its kitchen display system to improve the operational flow, said Motenko.

Initially, use of the iPads was also projected to improve labor efficiencies, he said. But that aspect has yet to come to fruition — in part because Stacked is focused on creating a warm, hospitable environment with the delivery of food and drinks to the table.

Though speed and value are key aspects of Stacked, guests tend to use the restaurants more like full-service concepts, lingering at the table, Motenko said. As a result, the chain has added more appetizers and drink options.

Stacked now has three locations open in Southern California, each with projected annual sales of $3 million to $4 million, and more locations are scheduled to open later this year.

Motenko predicts that tablet technology will soon become much more commonplace, and he’s looking forward to the day when people will talk about “the Stacked experience” and not even mention the iPads.

“People walk out of Stacked and say the technology was cool, but the concept might not have been successful if it was only about the technology,” he said. “If you’re using this technology, it has to be for the benefit of the guest.” 

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected] [4].
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout [5].