Shades of Isaac Asimov's "The Naked Sun."
A number of companies are testing tablet-ordering systems with plans to roll out the devices nationwide before the end of the year. Most of the tests are being conducted in California because of the proximity of Silicon Valley where the systems are being developed.
Putting a restaurant's menu on a tablet allows for more detailed descriptions of the food and its preparation, eliminates order-taking errors and eventually will result in reduced labor costs because wait staff will be able to handle more tables, said Gary Mekikian of Silicon Valley Technologies, which developed Taggtogo.com, a three-part system that includes Web-based and mobile apps, as well as a tablet-ordering system.
DeNorma has developed a similar tablet system it hopes to expand to medical and retail uses that will not only take an order but also allow patrons to pay by swiping a credit card, reducing the role of the wait staff even further.
DeNorma said its smart menu can "increase the IQ of any service establishment" by handling reservations, tracking inventory, monitoring security and even detecting carbon monoxide.
"Changing the 'daily special,' -- because it 'ran-out' -- is simplified with this tablet," the Los Angeles-area company said in a release. "Even the bartender can benefit from bottle sensors synced to DeNorma that allows him to keep track and not give away too many free drinks."
Mekikian said the biggest advantage of tablet ordering may be its impact on errors and large groups.
"You have big problems when you have a group of more than four or five people," Mekikian said. "Servers find it a challenge -- remembering what each person wants, the options, transcribing those accurately. What we're trying to do is address that problem.
"The restaurant can have a 3G- or WiFi-enabled device it can hand to the group. Each member will have the ability to peruse the menu … allow(ing) the consumer to go as deep as they want. As a person in the group places the order, they can pass it to the next person. After everybody has had a chance, it goes to the waiting station. Either the order can be printed out or automatically sent to the kitchen.
"It eliminates mistakes, puts a name next to the order and makes the process more entertaining."
The next phase of development will involve allowing orders to be placed with an iPhone.
Placing orders for pickup or in-house consumption through the Web has been around for a while, but those systems generally involve networks that take a percentage -- as much as 50 percent of the tab. Mekikian's company has developed a platform that allows restaurants to take orders directly from their own Web sites instead.
"Eighty percent (of business) is coming from repeat customers," Mekikian said. "Those customers just want the convenience and ease of interacting with the restaurant's own application and Web site."
Mekikian said his system adds a "backend" function that "optimizes the restaurant-to-consumer experience" by adding marketing and online communications.
The system's iPhone app -- which is to be expanded to Android and BlackBerry systems later this year -- incorporates a social networking function.
"If you're sitting in a restaurant, you have the option of checking yourself in and making yourself visible to other people in the restaurant," Mekikian said.
"Say you're in a nightclub. As you're ordering, you can see others in the restaurant on an anonymous basis. It allows you to see people you may not know and you can interact with them online. You can order for them if you want to or if they allow you to."
But doesn't this make people more isolated, allowing them to hide behind their computers and phones like the characters in the Asimov book?
"I remember back when I was in my early 20s and socializing and going out to a nightclub or restaurant ... to meet people you didn't know," Mekikian said. "It was stressful. If you have this instant social networking function built into your platform and are willing to participate and then make a decision based on this interaction, you have more socializing rather than less. …
"Everybody has some type of mobile device and they want to interact with businesses through the Internet. The restaurant industry is one of the last to adapt to this brave new world of Internet interaction and social media-based networking. The secret is to come up with a service that is extremely affordable and gives the restaurant a lot of control over their interactions with their customers, especially their regular customers."