I was out for dinner this weekend at Baton Rouge and had the opportunity to peruse their iPad menu. This was a surprising treat as restaurants I’ve visited before – Jack Astor’s has iPad menus as an example – have been reticent about giving me a $500 electronic device with 2 children under 10 at the table with me. Seems like a fair assessment of risk, and I don’t blame them.
Is the iPad menu a gimmick or the menu of tomorrow? As with every other retail technology, we have to consider benefits to the business owner, the diner and also the ROI. Here are my thoughts on based purely my single menu experience.
User Experience – The iPads are provided in a protective leather like case, much like a traditional paper based menu in this environment. They are quite heavy compared to standard paper menus. While not a showstopper, carrying iPad menus for our table of 8 made for quite an armload for our server. The app used on the unit appeared to be from an outfit called Menu Live. [I couldn't find more online - if someone knows more - let me know in the comments.]
The app was as well laid out and simple to use. It made use of a relatively standard ipad app interface with scrolling and graphics that fit the look and feel of the restaurant brand. On the positive side, it was possible to see images of all of the dishes. This was a definite plus in the opinion of the ladies of our party and not generally something you can do with a regular menu. Unfortunately, they had only one image of a dessert, and it turns out everyone likes to see photos of desserts. On the negative side, the iPad screens felt strangely small for a menu. I hadn’t thought about it prior to this visit, but menus are generally a much larger format in my experience. There was a useful feature in the menu that allowed the diner to add potential options to a favourites list for easier ordering, but I didn’t really use it.
I found it difficult to remember where everything was as I went through the options. When I look through a menu I remember where an item I want is in the ‘book’ – the page, the section, or what have you. The endless scrolling format of the menu didn’t provide that same bookmark in my mind, and for some reason I didn’t warm up to the favourites list. The app did have well placed and easily accessible sections at the bottom of the screen, but using the app felt too different from a regular menu. I would have preferred a menu that allowed me to swipe from side to side with page animations. Something that looks more like a regular menu but could also leverage some of the features above. It reminds me of how Amazon added page numbers into the kindle for book clubs after complaints that there was no consistent way to share a location in an eBook. This came about because book clubs are about sharing as part of a community. Dining out has a similar element to it. Whenever I eat out, all of my fellow diners ask each other what we are having and then read that item in the menu. It just feels more natural to go to a page number.
ROI - The staff indicated that the menus are sponsored by a beer company. Right at the beginning the diner watches a very brief and not unreasonable ad for beer. You can also see the little logo in the bottom left hand corner of the image. This makes some good sense. Even though the restaurants using these menus are relatively high end, having 10′s of iPads and associated charging gear in the establishment is a signficant investment. This is the kind of investment that is best supported by advertising. If the restaurant isn’t paying, they are certainly staying in the black. One must wonder, however, how much of this investment would continue to be borne by a third party. What about menu updates? What about adding a card with today’s specials? Does this arrangement mean that the menus go away after a certain time? I’m curious as to whether the menu app is tracking what customers are looking at or not and whether the data is analyzed. That could be an additional value.
Ongoing Support - Adding new technology to a restaurant will always impact the staff. Whether owned by the restaurant or not, there is a cost to handling these devices, and while it is arguably a sunk cost, there is effort involved. Staff now have two types of menus to worry about – a potential issue for consistency with pricing or menu items. Staff have to ensure units are charged. Staff have to carry the units around and ensure that nobody steals or damages them.
iPad Lockdown – The app itself is great, but there was no kiosk-like lockdown app on the iPads to lock them down. Why is that important? A couple of my friends are keen to explore technology and are open for fun on Saturday night. That means that the first thing that they did was go out of the menu app and start messing around with anything but the menu app on the iPads. One changed the default language to Korean. I’m sure the folks at the restaurant will enjoy re-setting that. It’s tough to do when all the menu options are in characters you can’t recognize. My other fellow diner logged into Game Center and was disappointed he couldn’t play Angry Birds. It was possible to take screen shots with the front and top button and placing those images in the photo app. It was a fun trick to take a screenshot of the menu and then open the photo app so that my fellow diner could not figure out how to get off the page she was on because she was looking at a screenshot and not the menu app. I shudder to think what would happen if these were iPad 2′s with cameras. There was an administrative option in the app that allowed menus to be reset for new customers, so the app was reasonably locked down, but even that should be a little harder to get at.
The app is well done, and it looks great, and absolute full credit goes to those behind this idea. At present, my assessment is that these menus are a fad. With respect to customer benefit, it was a fun experience to muck about with them, but they didn’t fundamentally improve our dining experience. All of us had used iPads before, so even the novelty was slight. Beyond the photos of the food, there wasn’t much additional value to the diner. There was little that couldn’t be done with a traditional paper menu. While photos were nice, it’s primarily a restaurant for steaks and ribs, and the look of the entrees doesn’t change radically. My fellow diners wanted to know why we couldn’t place our order directly, or page the waiter or pay on the device. I can’t speak to what the restaurant owner gets from the iPad menus. Even if there is no hardware or software cost to the owner, if there is no benefit from the perspective of the customer, and the staff encounter additional effort, I don’t see these units lasting too long.