On the Menu: Mobile technology is changing dining out


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In more than a few local restaurants, notepads are being replaced with iPads, coupons are going virtual, and you can pay your bill with your smartphone. Computers infiltrated restaurants long ago, but the rise of mobile technologies has created a surge of interest in products designed to make the restaurant experience more efficient, consistent and profitable.

Chris Dilla's Bocktown Beer and Grill grew to two locations last year. An early adaptor at using social media to promote her businesses, Ms. Dilla also explored other technologies that might appeal to her customer base. Bocktown has a mobile version of its website, which is linked to the user's location. If they use a smartphone to access the website, said Ms. Dilla, the phone will automatically go to the location that the user is closest to.

Bocktown also uses Tabbedout, a mobile payment application available for iPhones and Androids, which allows users to pay bills at participating establishments with their smartphones. Users can add credit cards to the application, then when they're at Bocktown, they let their server know they're going to use Tabbedout, give them an identification code then select on their phone which credit card they want to use.

Not only does it provide an additional level of security, the application also allows users to look at their bill in real time, so they can decide whether they want to splurge and have another beer or order dessert. If they're eating with a group, they can pay their portion of the check individually -- no more tricky splitting of the tab.

Many of the most successful restaurant technologies seem to provide fresh answers to old problems. Pittsburgh local Robb Myer came up with the idea for his company while searching for a place to have brunch in San Francisco. He wandered from restaurant to restaurant, adding his name to multiple wait lists, then wound up returning to the one that called him when a table was available. Soon after, NoWait was born. Restaurants use an iPad to run the NoWait application, creating a custom wait list that communicates with customers via text message.

Allowing diners to "wait where they want" takes much of the unpleasantness out of waiting for a table, explained co-founder Luke Panza. For restaurants, that means retaining more customers overall, as well as customers who are happier when they sit at a table.

The company, which was a participant in the AlphaLab technology startup incubator on the South Side, has quickly gained an impressive following, with restaurant clients in 31 states as well as Canada. In Pittsburgh, clients include Dinette in East Liberty, BRGR in East Liberty and Cranberry, Burgatory at the Waterworks and the Sharp Edge, Downtown.

They're not the only company offering this kind of service, but NoWait is distinguished by its user-friendly interface, said Mr. Panza, which is also faster than Web-based applications.

By streamlining the communication process between host and customer, the restaurant can also fill seats more efficiently. For example, if a group is notified that their table is ready, but they're having a drink at a nearby establishment, they can text back to the restaurant, letting them know when they'll return. Originally, said Mr. Panza, they didn't realize that the customer's ability to text back to the restaurant would be so important. But they've found that back-and-forth communication benefits both the restaurant and the customer.

Another Pittsburgh startup that has found success in the restaurant world is RhoMania, which developed an application called Grail for interactive wine, liquor and cocktail lists. Its local clients include Rico's Italian Restaurant in Ross, Verde Mexican Kitchen and Cantina in Garfield, the 17th Street Cafe on the South Side and Juniper Grill in McMurray.

Restaurants use the application differently, said Darren Olson, president and CEO. Some have iPad lists that just include a particular type of beverage, while others include the entire menu. Some restaurants ask RhoMania to create the information for the application -- they have a sommelier on staff -- while others prefer to curate the information themselves.

At Verde, owner Jeff Catalina was excited by the idea of incorporating useful technologies into the diner's experience. He had always planned on offering a large tequila selection, and he decided that an iPad tequila list would be a fun way of allowing interested customers to explore the selections.

Mr. Catalina doesn't think that the iPad replaces server training and education, but it's a helpful enhancement, especially if diners want some time to mull over their options. "New ways to engage customers are a good thing," he said.

Mr. Olson emphasized that Grail does more than offer a fun experience to the tech-savvy customer -- it also increases beverage sales and restaurant profits. Restaurants "see an increase in wine, liquor and beer sales of about 15 to 20 percent," he said. He attributes the increase to the fact that diners who have more information are often willing to spend a little more money than they might otherwise. "Price is always going to be an issue," he said, "but it becomes less of an issue when it's less risky."

Grail rewards customers with greater confidence and information. LoyalTree, another Pittsburgh startup, gives restaurants a high-tech and highly customizable way to offer more tangible rewards.

To use LoyalTree, iPhone and Android users can download the app, then join loyalty programs for all the participating businesses that they want. Some of the current clients include Crazy Mochas throughout the city, Hofbrauhaus on the South Side, Rivertowne Pour House in Monroeville, Winghart's Burger and Whiskey Bar on the South Side; Sonoma Grill, Seviche and NOLA on the Square, Downtown; and Mercurio's in Shadyside.

For the customer, "it's like carrying 80 different plastic cards," said Jim Ambrose, director of Business Development. They simply scan the Quick Response or QR codes -- two-dimensional barcodes that can send users coupons or link them to websites with a quick scan from a smartphone app -- at participating businesses to earn points and unlock deals. For the business, it provides a new way to connect not just with existing customers, but with new customers as well, since LoyalTree members can look for other businesses that participate in the rewards program. When they add a business, they immediately receive a promotion to encourage them to try that establishment.

Businesses also get useful information about their customers and the success of promotions, or even specific menu items. In the newest version of the program, businesses can even send specific deals out to LoyalTree members, to increase business on a slow day or promote a special offering.

In reality, these technologies have made only small inroads into the restaurant market, and not all of them will flourish. But just as online reservation systems went from being an anomaly to an expectation, diners and customers will likely make room for other new developments, and some may be born right here in Pittsburgh.

dining

China Millman: 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com. Follow her at http://twitter.com/chinamillman.


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