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Richard Hyatt: Food service goes high-tech

Times change and so do the punchlines.

"Waiter, there's a fly on my Android."

Or, as the New York Times put it:

"I'm a Tablet. I'll be your waiter tonight."

Such phrases may be tomorrow's clichés as more chain restaurants install hand-held devices that allow customers to order a plate of nachos, a drink with an umbrella, check their Facebook page, play a round of Candy Crush and pay their bill.

Here in town, Chili's Grill and Bar has added a Ziosk to every table, as have the other 1,199 restaurants in the chain in an effort to customize the food service operation.

Chili's is not alone. Restaurants such as Applebee's and Panera Bread are also streamlining the ways a customer can order their food or leave a tip.

The tablet at Chili's is a handy device. For 99 cents you can play as many games as you want to play, which is helpful when you're keeping a child busy until the food comes. For free, you can check headlines on USA Today or see what the ingredients are in a favorite dish.

This week I was interested in a new Tex-Mex dish but the written menu warned that it contained nuts. With a child that has to avoid peanuts I asked our server whether the item contained goobers. We checked Ziosk and it assured me there were no peanuts.

"Some people have doubts but it has helped more than it has hurt," said Armand, our server.

Some customers may be intimidated by the move to high-tech ideas, but the electronic devices are a throwback to concepts of old.

Old-timers remember Spano's, a legendary Columbus restaurant that for decades served bread pudding to hungry clientele near the Springer Theater. At every table were pads and pencils, which customers used to write down their order. (That same principle is now used at Mary Mac's Tea Room in Atlanta, founded by a relative of local restaurateur Salvador Spano.)

Armand comfortably blended the traditional things a waiter provides with the digitized amenities.

"Some people may think the tablet is impersonal, but most customers appreciate the additional services," he said.

If Chili's was a white-table, high-end restaurant the tablet might not be appropriate, but in a place that is somewhere between fast food and overpriced operations that sell atmosphere more than bargains, it works.

The Ziosk scans coupons and is capable of accepting credit cards. It even provides a sliding scale that helps you compute the size of your tip.

When you're done, your credit information is immediately deleted. We must trust the system, just as we trust our server when he or she walks away with our Visa Card.

But if there's a fly in our soup, it will still be doing the backstroke.

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at