The two founders of BJ's Restaurants (Nasdaq: BJRI ) are striking out on their own with a new concept called Stacked.
There won't be waiters taking orders. Every table will have an Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iPad, allowing patrons to scour the menu and send customized food and beverage orders to the kitchen.
A high-tech automated eatery isn't new. I hit up uWink -- a concept dreamed up by the same guy behind Atari and Chuck E. Cheese -- three summers ago. Every table had a pair of touchscreen monitors where guests could place orders, play games, or engage in trivia bouts with other diners.
It proved to be too much. The uWink website claims that the restaurant closed in September, though it's still looking to license its Tapcode software platform.
Touchscreen monitors in bars and eateries seemed extravagant at the time. Outside of a few upscale bars with Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) Surface installations, restaurants haven't warmed up to interactive tech -- until now.
Stacked isn't the only eatery incorporating Apple's defining tablet. Some restaurants have their wine lists available on iPads. Some restaurateurs are even managing their establishments with the iPad.
IAC's (Nasdaq: IACI ) UrbanSpoon rolled out RezBook in select Seattle restaurants last year. The plan is to take on OpenTable's (Nasdaq: OPEN ) costlier hardware platform, yet still offer web-based reservations and an electronic reservations book like OpenTable's marquee platform.
The hospitality industry is bound to have mixed feelings about the iPad invasion. Wait staff jobs will be threatened as a smaller staff of food runners is all that will be needed. The engaging interface will likely prop up average orders and help turn tables faster.
Tablets are attractively priced, and they will continue to get cheaper. Today's novelty may be standard equipment in a few years.
Why not? Visual iPads may do a better job of moving daily specials. They'll definitely make it easier to order another round of drinks. If restaurants are smart, they can also use tablets to capture diner contact information to market to them directly later.
Mobile ordering is already revolutionizing certain chains. Chipotle's (NYSE: CMG ) mobile ordering app had some hiccups during its introduction two years ago, but it eventually helped tech-savvy burrito lovers bypass potential long ordering queues by tapping in their orders.
The technology is here, and it won't take long before the savviest of restaurants take advantage of the potential. My experience at uWink in Hollywood three years ago was surreal, but it's about to become a lot more commonplace.
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