Among the novelties presented at the cruise ship restaurant featured in last week's episode of Top Chef was a tablet-based menu, which -- three years after the iPad's introduction normalized digital wine lists -- still retains its ability to make diners ooh and ahh.
But a producer of tablet menu software believes the falling costs of tablets could nearly wipe out paper menus in coming years.
"I'd be surprised if, three years from now, a majority of restaurants are using paper," says Eric Arsenault of Menuvative.
According to a study conducted last year by research firm Technomic, 51 percent of consumers surveyed think it's important for restaurants to integrate technology into the ordering process. They're "most interested in seeing more tableside touch-screen devices that enable digital ordering and at-table payment, digital rewards tied to loyalty programs, and menus on iPads and other tablet devices," Nation's Restaurant News reported.
Yet tablets have been slow to catch on because of the sheer number of tablets needed to properly equip a restaurant. While a high-end restaurant may not need dozens of digitized wine lists, a busy family-style restaurant can't ask its 200 guests to share 10 tablets. "It's a barrier to entry," admits Arsenault, who has never seen a tablet menu outside of the very small group of restaurants he supplies.
When Bone's, an Atlanta steakhouse that distinguished itself as an early adopter of tablet technology, in 2010 bought a set of iPads to serve as wine lists, each device cost $499. The price has since dropped to about $250, or - as Arsenault likes to tell restaurant owners - 63 cents a day over the course of the year.
"We guarantee interactivity will bring in more than 63 cents a day," Arsenault says. "Pictures of food make people order more."
Using Menuvative's app, restaurant guests can visually customize their steaks, plopping grilled shrimp atop a filet mignon.
"When you see shrimp on your steak, it's impossible to say no," Arsenault says.
The software also allows restaurants to instantly update their menus; append lengthy descriptions to dishes, including nutritional information, and push promotional deals. For example, one of Arsenault's clients annually sells holiday gift certificates. In 2012, the company's seven restaurants equipped with tablet menus sold 47.9 percent more certificates than they'd sold in 2011, a jump Arsenault attributes to a dedicated page on the digital menu. At the restaurants using paper menus, gift certificate sales were up only 9 percent.
"It equated to $200,000 more," Arsenault says.
Since Menuvative's tablets are set up so they only run menu software, Arsenault claims they don't pose a tabletop distraction or theft risk. And he argues they're more hygienic than paper, since a swipe of Windex will sanitize a tablet. But he concedes that elderly guests may have trouble adapting to the technology, so advises his clients to keep a few paper menus handy - although he's not certain too many customers will request them once a few major players take the plunge.
"I just really think once people get past the fear of something different, it's going to catch on like wildfire," he says.