Paper menus to computer tablets

New device aims to change the way we order our food

E la Carte boasts that its electronic menu, called Presto, makes the hospitality experience “more convenient, social and fun for guests.” Dylan Hewlett

The future of restaurants may be square-shaped.

Restaurants across the United States are starting to use a touch-screen device, called the Presto, to bring mobile computing to the service industry.

The Presto is a small touch device that sits on the restaurant table that features pictures of available dishes. Customers can look at pictures of the food they want, send their order directly to the kitchen, and do everything from play trivia while they wait to checking out Google Maps to find out what else there is to do in the area.

The company, E la Carte, boasts that the Presto makes the hospitality experience “more convenient, social and fun for the guests, while being more profitable for the restaurant.”

“In this technology-heavy world, people are very used to instant gratification,” said Megan Pittsley, associate director of E la Carte.

“If their server isn’t there to order a drink right when they want, that’ll affect their tips. With the Presto, people can always feel satisfied, their order goes to the kitchen, and even if they’re hungry they can play games while they wait.”

E la Carte, founded in 2008, is the brainchild of Rajat Suri.

One night as an MIT student, Suri went out to dinner with friends, and, at the end of their meals,  couldn’t decide how to split the bill. Suri eventually dropped out of university to learn about the restaurant business, and soon came up with the idea that would become the Presto.

Around 100 restaurants use the Presto, Pittsley said. Those restaurants report 85 per cent of their guests use the device, and see 16 per cent higher tips and nine times more email signups.

Plans for a downloadable app version of their software are in development, she said.

E la Carte charges around $200-$700 US to set up their system, depending on the number of tables. The company has many investors, including the creators of Dropbox, Farmville and Reddit.

Pittsley noted the company will be announcing a partnership with a major Canadian distributor, but wouldn’t divulge more details.

Lauren Parsons, a server at Prairie Ink Restaurant, says that restaurants can’t replace the personal nature of the wait staff - and that people won’t want to tip a machine.

“I don’t think it will replace waiters and waitresses - people like having someone to talk to,” Parsons said.

“I’ve seen (restaurants) use similar devices when I went to Europe. At a white-tablecloth place, it would remove the personal element. But servers live on how many tips they get, and if they’re just doing everything on this machine, there isn’t really an incentive to tip higher for great service.”

Victor Cui, a technology expert at the University of Winnipeg, thinks the technology won’t kill the service industry.

“The device cuts down on labour costs by 26 per cent, which will mean that some servers will be out of a job,” he said.

“But human interaction is still preferred in any situation. I don’t think it’ll ever replace the service staff.”

Published in Volume 66, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 14, 2012)

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