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EATING OUT

iPad menus lure customers

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EXTRA PADDING: Soon apps for eateries will be available as downloads. So diners with iPads can browse menus at home

Gone are the days where dining out at a 'fancy' eatery meant that a kindly old waiter in a lightly stained bow tie would scribble your order on a notepad, grudgingly agreeing to any special requests. A dining experience today is likely to be significantly more hi-tech. After Blackberry messenger groups that keep regular clients updated with drinks specials and performances, and PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) order systems that do away with the well-worn notepad, the latest technology to be introduced to the experience of eating out is the iPad.

Three restaurants in Mumbai - Royal China, Koh and, most recently, Escobar - have introduced iPad menus to lure customers. "Koh by Ian Kittichai is a contemporary high energy place and the digital interactive menus on the iPads fit right into the whole concept, " says Romil Ratra the General Manager at the InterContinental, where Koh is located.

Neville Vazifdar, who owns Royal China, was inspired to introduce iPads at his restaurants after seeing them in high-end eateries in New York. An iPad is placed at each table so that guests can see images of each of the dishes. The menu has over 200 images. "When people come to a Chinese restaurant, they have very specific ideas of what they want to order - they know they want a Manchow soup and a black bean sauce, " says Vazifdar. "But when you can see what it will look like you are more inclined to try new things. For instance we have a squid and broccoli dish. If you heard the description you might be hesitant to order it, but when people see what it will look like then they give it a shot. " Is this just an upgrade from the greasy, laminated paper menu with pictures of food that many modest Chinese joints have?

Not exactly, as the iPad offers more than just pictures. Other features include a 'totaliser', which allows you to create a basket of the dishes you want and see a total bill along with tax before you place your order. The application will soon be available to download, so if you have an iPad at home, you can browse the menu and make your picks even before you reach the restaurant.
The response from diners has been positive, restaurant owners say. "When we built the iPad app and introduced the menus on the iPads to the guests in the restaurant, we also made some conventional paper menus, but no one opts for them anymore, " says Ratra. "Everyone prefers the interactive menu on the iPad. " Rahul Bhattacharya, a Mumbai-based entrepreneur who dined at Royal China, says, "I think it adds to the experience. Technology is everywhere else in our lives, so why not add it to the eating out experience?" However there are still those who prefer the traditional paper menus. "I just missed flipping through the whole menu and picking what I want, " says British-born journalist Ethel Saunders. "The Escobar menu asked me to pick cocktails under the categories 'vodka based', 'gin based', etc. But I hadn't decided yet. "

After restaurants, the iPad is now headed to high-end stores. "The iPad is meant to keep the customer engaged, " says Edgardo C Cruzet of 360?CMS, the company that designed the menu for Royal China. It's currently looking to introduce applications for a luxury salon and a jewellery store. "At Royal China some of the things we are looking to do are, have interactive videos on dim sum culture, recipes for selected dishes, and even have Chinese characters who will say each dish so the guest can learn what it is called in Mandarin or Cantonese" he says.

Introducing an iPad on every table is a sizable investment. "At Rs 35, 000 per iPad, on an average a restaurant would spend about seven lakhs on the instruments and then the software can cost anything between two to ten lakhs depending on its sophistication and features, making the approximate initial investment about 15 lakhs, " says Cruzet. Additional features and a maintenance contract drive up the cost.

The iPad, however, is not really about value for money or increasing efficiency. Mitali Gupta, proprietor of confectioners Not Just Deserts, bought an iPad to showcase her menu. "The iPad is very user-friendly and works better than flipping through real photos or showing a power point presentation on a laptop, as I used to, " says Gupta. "But really more than efficiency it is a style statement. It's something new and fancy, and people are impressed when you use it in the store. "

Will the ability to order on an iPad eventually make the waiter redundant? We think not. "Even if it's possible I don't want to introduce direct ordering at Escobar - we like the human touch, " says Vardhaman Choksi, the owner of Escobar. "It's a high end restaurant and the interaction between the customer and the butler is part of the experience. "


(Some names have been changed )

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