Have you ever been to a Chili's? Have you ever placed an order for the World-Famous Baby Back Ribs? Have you ever decided to, what the heck, make it a Full Rack, with some Homestyle Fries and Cinnamon Apples on the side? Have you ever felt that, for making these decisions, your server was sort of judging you?
Chili's, like pretty much any restaurant that sells something called Skillet Queso, does not want you to experience this feeling. It wants you, instead, to enjoy the dining experience in a way that is as chewy and gooey and inhibition-free as possible. It wants your relationship with its menu to be unmediated—for you to peruse its offerings and then search your soul and then do, in the end, what is in your heart. Chili's, above all, wants to remove any friction that might separate you from your whims—in the hope that those whims will include an order of Loaded Potato Skins for the table.
You know who can be a pretty good source of that friction, though? Fellow humans. Humans who are, to be fair, probably not at all judging you for what you are ordering at Chili's, but who are also potential judgers, which in itself can be enough to make you rethink your rack of ribs/cheese-covered potatoes/life choices. To prevent all this, Chili's recently made a big change to its in-store ordering system. The chain partnered with Ziosk, the restaurant-targeted tablet-maker, to develop a series of tabletop devices that allow customers to order their meals without the pesky interference of a human.
The tablets let your order your meal—and pay for it—through a screen, as you would with online ordering. (They also, as a bonus, offer games for kids and news offerings from USA Today.) Chili's just completed what it's calling "the largest rollout of tabletop tablets in the U.S."—which includes the installation of more than 45,000 tablets across 823 Chili's restaurants. "By this fall," Austen Mulinder, Ziosk's CEO, said in a press release, "guests at nearly every Chili's in the country can place orders, play games and pay their checks from our tabletop tablets."
That doesn't necessarily herald the end of human-centered food service; Chili's still requires people, of course, to do the actual delivery of the food customers order. There are still servers doing the serving at Chili's. What the transition does indicate, though, is an active attempt to minimize the interaction Chili's customers have with humans.
And here's the intriguing thing: Chili's is doing all that because de-humanizing the restaurant is, it turns out, good business. In 2013, in a pilot program, Chili's installed tablets at nearly 200 of its stores. And the chain found, Bloomberg Businessweek reported, that the presence of the tablets could "reliably increase the size of the average check." By, often, a fairly large margin.
That's in part because the tablets set defaults for tip amounts. The machines automatically suggest a tip of 20 percent; you can go lower than that (or higher), but you'll need to actively decide to make that change. Chili's is finding the same thing that New York City taxis have: Default settings are, behavioral economics-wise, powerful.
You could also attribute the financial benefits of mechanized menus to screen-based ordering's immediacy. Not having to wait for servers to come and go can expedite the overall dining experience—shaving, Ziosk estimates, up to five minutes off each meal. And quicker table turnarounds mean the ability to serve more customers—especially helpful during peak hours.
But the most intriguing finding takes us back to the whim thing. Ziosk has found that eliminating the wait for a human server can boost impulse orders of appetizers at the beginning of a meal—orders that seem to be encouraged by the digital menus' large images. If you come hungry and you don't have to wait for a server and you're looking at an enormous picture of gooey nachos... there's a good chance you will order those nachos. Ziosk claims to have found a 20-percent increase in appetizer sales, as compared with standard, server-based ordering strategies.
And the bump translates to post-dinner offerings, as well. The Chili's version of the Ziosk menus is programmed to have images of dessert (a molten chocolate cake, say) pop up while customers are still eating their main courses. This has led, Chili's says, to a 20-percent increase in dessert sales. (Ziosk claims a 30-percent dessert-sale bump for its clients overall.) Coffee sales are apparently up, too. The digital menus are constantly present at the table—constantly reminding, constantly beckoning. And constantly promising, even and especially if you order that molten chocolate cake, not to judge.