TORRANCE, Calif. -- Jamie Hill went to a new restaurant the other day that required her to order food not from a waiter but by swiping her fingers on an iPad.
"It was amazing," she says of her visit to Stacked, a create-your-own burger and pizza restaurant here that opened last May. "My daughter brought me here and showed me how to do it. You get to build your food. It was fun."
Stacked, which has two locations in California and is set to open a third in October, is one of many eateries now using technology — specifically iPads or other tablet computers — to serve customers.
Steakhouses in San Francisco, Atlanta and Chicago use tablets to let customers make wine and steak selections. At 12 locations in Boston, Au Bon Pain lets customers choose ingredients for their sandwiches using an iPad.
It doesn't make the ordering process more accurate, says Ed Frechette, vice president of marketing for Au Bon Pain. But "it's tech, so it's fun."
The rise of tablets couldn't come at a more opportune time for the $604 billion restaurant industry. Traffic has been flat since 2007, largely as a result of the sluggish economy and belt-tightening by consumers, says Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant analyst at NPD Group.
Yearly visits to restaurants are flat at about 60 million, Riggs says. Meanwhile tablets, dominated by the iPad, are one of the best-selling consumer items. An estimated 208 million of the devices will be sold by 2014, up from about 54 million this year, researcher Gartner projects.
Umami Burger, a Los Angeles-based chain, uses a Presto tablet leased from E La Carte, which supplies the devices to restaurants. The company recently received $4 million in funding from Lightbank, a venture fund run by Eric Lefkofsky and Brad Keywell, the co-founders of Groupon.
"You can look and see everything you want, instead of written descriptions," Umami customer Terri Covert said at lunch hour recently. "I like the visuals. You know what you're going to get."
E La Carte founder Rajat Suri says he has 100 restaurants signed up for Presto, and another 150 on a waiting list. Presto is powered by an 18-hour battery and, because the tablet is proprietary, "It won't get stolen," Suri said.
But Stacked co-founder Paul Motenko says theft has not been an issue. "We have not lost a single iPad; we have not broken a single iPad; and not a single one has stopped working."
For the first location in Torrance, he bought 60 iPads for the tables, a $30,000 investment for a restaurant that cost him $1 million to set up. His software system lets customers order from their table, send the meal ticket directly to the kitchen — and even pay via the iPad. Servers bring the food and beverages.
"The advantage to the guest is the speed of service," he says. "The communication between the guest and kitchen is immediate, which is something that's unheard of in the restaurant business."
More yummy info, images on tablets
Restaurants are using tablets in different ways. At Bones in Atlanta, it's to show off its wines. At the Lark Creek Steak restaurant in San Francisco, it's all about touting its steaks.
"The advantage for us is we can include a lot more information," Lark Senior Vice President Quinn McKenna says. "Instead of just saying '14-ounce steak,' on the menu, we can show pictures of it and say where the beef comes from. One of the common challenges in a steakhouse is that your medium rare might be different from ours. But if I show you a picture, everyone agrees."
McKenna hopes Lark's testing will result in diners spending more. Eventually, he'd like to add Amazon-like features that learn about the customer. For example, "If you ordered this steak, you might like this particular wine," he suggests.
At Stacked, customers build milkshakes from scratch (add Oreos, peanut butter cups, strawberries) and get rather exotic with other staples, like a macaroni and cheese pizza or burgers stacked with lettuce, pickles and potato chips.
But Riggs says paper menus aren't going away anytime soon.
"Older consumers won't want to bother with the iPad," she says. And for restaurant owners, "paper menus are way less expensive."