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A restaurant firm turns to iPads, automation -- and more hiring

Trying to replace wait staff with automation is a mistake, says CTO

January 15, 2013 05:31 PM ET

Computerworld - There is a push in retail and restaurants to accomplish more through self-service automation, but that trend doesn't necessarily mean that a business should look to reduce staff by rolling out technology.

One company that's doing more with technology is OTG Management, which runs restaurants and other concessions in airports. It has deployed iPads in airport terminal areas using new table-type seating. Each seat also has a credit card reader, allowing travelers to order food with the iPad, pay the bill using the card reader or or simply surf the Web and charge their own device.

There's no obligation to buy anything, said Albert Lee, the chief technology officer at OTG. It's more important that people leave with a good experience.

"It's that trust that has helped us build out in a successful way," he said.

This technology and attitude appears to be working for OTG. The company started deploying iPads two years ago at JFK and LaGuardia airports, and now has 1,500 devices in use. By the end of this year, it hopes to have as many as 7,000 tablets deployed, including at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and at Toronto Pearson International.

The iPads and card swipes took away some of the things waiters and waitresses usually deal with, allowing them instead to focus on better customer service. They greet new customers, make sure their needs are met, deliver the food, and help with the iPads, if need be. The efficiencies gained allow the wait staff to handle more customers, said Lee.

Although one goal of automation is often staff cuts, Lee says that's just wrong.

"A lot of people, unfortunately, look at this as a staff reduction exercise and they are doing it so they don't have to answer questions with real humans, and I think that's the biggest mistake in the industry," said Lee.

"This is a tool to ensure the accuracy of an order, a tool to empower the customer," said Lee, "but the service still remains the same.

"People really need to focus on customer service and customer experience," said Lee. The iPad and self-help kiosks "are fantastic tools" but "you need a human element to make it really successful," he said.

It has also meant more IT hiring. OTG is adding four iOS developers, and an equal number of tech support staff. OTG worked with a firm, Control Group, to develop the iPad platform for the restaurant's use.

In the broader market, restaurants have been generally slow to adopt customer-facing technology for ordering and checkouts. Francie Mendelsohn, the president of Summit Research Associates, which studies self-service systems, said automated kiosk ordering at some restaurants is "logically a no-brainer, except practically it hasn't worked all that well."

Mendelsohn said the automated systems often have "build menus" and when customers start deviating from them the process can get time-consuming. Sometimes, customers may not get what they want.

"Of course, with a human there's a very good chance you're not going to end up with what you ordered, either," she said.

OTG iPads
OTG is using iPads and self-service technology at its airport eateries to speed up service and keep travelers happy.

covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at Twitter @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed Thibodeau RSS. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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