Dining With Denise Neil

Many Wichita restaurants automating customer service

Chili’s and several other chain restaurants have added tablets to tables.
Chili’s and several other chain restaurants have added tablets to tables. File photo

A high-tech table-side trend has arrived in many Wichita restaurants, and it’s taking waiting off the menu.

Automated ordering systems in a variety of different forms have been been installed in several restaurants around town, and for some, they are welcome additions that give the customers some control over their dining experience. Others see them as a space-age nuisance and worry that they’ll take the human touch out of the dining experience.

In Wichita, Chili’s, Applebee’s and Abuelos are using table-side tablets and kiosks as a supplement to the wait staff. The tablets allow patrons to make requests and pay their bill at the table. They can even use them, for an extra charge, to play games while they wait for their food. Red Robin will be getting the kiosks soon, and T.G.I. Fridays is testing them, too.

Local Panera restaurants have introduced an online ordering system that allows people to place and pay for their orders using an app then pick their food up at a shelf near the front of the store. No human interaction required. (Self-serve kiosks that manage orders and payment also are rolling out around the country and should eventually be in Wichita’s Panera restaurants.)

And several Subway restaurants in Wichita have installed automated drive-through kiosks that ask customers to punch up exactly what they want on their sandwiches. They can pay at the kiosk then drive up to the window to get their food. The new QuikTrip kitchens have gone high-tech, too, asking diners to place their orders on a digital kiosk, take a number and wait for their food to be ready.

The kiosks were added to the tables at Wichita’s Abuelos, 1413 N. Waterfront Parkway, in November. And so far, said general manager Chuck Ouelette, they have improved the experiences of both customers and wait staff.

Though people don’t order their full meals from the kiosks – the menu is too big and substitution possibilities too numerous – they can page their servers with the punch of a button. They also can order drinks or select appetizers, and when they’re ready to pay, customers can swipe their credit cards at the table and leave when they’re ready. Abuelos soon will be adding videos to the kiosks that show customers various dishes being prepared. They can see what the dish contains and how it’s prepared.

Customers who don’t like the kiosks don’t have to use them, Ouelette said. The server will remove them from the table.

Ouelette said he assured his wait staff when the devices arrived that they weren’t intended as people replacements.

“We’re doing it to enhance our guests’ dining experience and to assist our staff,” he said. “It’s an added bonus for our guests. It’s not replacing anyone.”

Ryan Burrus said he recently visited Chili’s and encountered one of the kiosks. His children were excited to play games, and he was happy that they were entertained. He didn’t realize the games weren’t free, though, and when his bill came, it had charges for premium games. (The waiter removed them after he complained.)

Besides that, he said, he liked the concept.

“I did like being able to pay my bill from the table,” he said. “No waiting for the server to deliver your bill and your credit card never has to leave your hands.”

But Jenny Myers said she wasn’t a fan of the new technology. She prefers a more face-to-face experience when she goes to a restaurant.

Myers recently dined at Abuelos and said she was initially turned off by the bulkiness of the devices.

She also didn’t like dealing with pleas from her daughters, who wanted to play the games on the kiosk, she said. Her family has a strict “no devices at the dinner table” rule.

“I’m just a people person,” she said. “I want to talk to people. I want to talk to my server and be personable. We don’t do iPhones at the table. We don’t do iPads at the table. When we’re at the table, it’s a family experience.”

But Rebecca Percival, who recently used a kiosk at a local Chili’s, said that she hopes more restaurants add such systems. It saved her time and hassle.

“I thought they were great,” she said. “It was convenient. Sometimes your waiters and waitresses can bet busy with other people, but with this, when you’re ready to leave, you can just go ahead and pay and even leave your tip.”

Reach Denise Neil at 316-268-6327 or dneil@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @deniseneil.