Electronic menus: food, Facebook, and fun. Coming to a restaurant near you?

Some eateries in hip places like California and New York are changing to electronic menus that let customers order food without waiters, play games, and even 'like' items on Facebook. 

By , Correspondent

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    This scene could soon be a thing of the past if electronic menus replace paper menus.
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At the Kinsale restaurant in Boston, the menu seems alive.

“Touch me!” it screams at diners with big white letters that look as if they came out of a Hollywood western. “Don’t just sit there! Touch me!” 

When you touch the screen, it shows you close-up pictures of things you might be interested in eating, and asks if you’d like to play a game. When it’s time to leave, it splits the bill for you and your friends – equally, or by item – and automatically adds a 20 percent tip.

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Behold, electronic menu – an innovation that some restaurateurs hope will soon become more ubiquitous than the drive through (and easier to understand, too). At some restaurants, it's a special device that lets customers order, pay, play, and even "like" their favorite local omelet on Facebook – all without having to resort to semaphore to flag down a waiter. At others, the menu is simply loaded onto an iPad or tablet provided at every table. 

The end of the paper menu? Perhaps, some say. But most waiters don't need to start looking for work yet.

The e-menu at the Kinsale is a device called Presto and was developed by a company started by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology dropout who once had some trouble figuring out how to split a restaurant bill with friends. Now the company, E la Carte, supplies its menus to about 300 restaurants across the United States – and is slowly making its way from California to the East Coast.

“You can actually order food and play games from your table without waiting. And it has a credit-card reader built in,” says 20-something Rajat Suri, the company’s chief executive officer. In April, the first electronic menus started appearing at restaurants in New York City – kosher restaurants – because Bernard Samet, the businessman who is selling them, is affiliated with an Israeli company that makes e-menus.

The New York version allows customers to “like” their favorite dishes on Facebook and to view the menu in their preferred language – English or Hebrew. 

According to Mr. Samet, digital menus encourage people to spend more by showing them appetizing photos and by suggesting other items that go well with their order. There are other advantages, too. Restaurant owners can change prices or take items off the menu without having to reprint anything, and they can use the menu for advertising or to analyze the customers’ favorites.

“I was overseas in Israel and I saw it in restaurants, and it struck me as an unbelievable idea,” Samet says.

Oriya Klein, the 20-something owner of Sushi Moto, a kosher Japanese eatery in Brooklyn, said electronic menus will make his restaurant unique.

“It just makes sense. The paper menu doesn’t do the food justice,” he says. “You want a menu that’s fun to go through, and that’s what I was looking for.”

Other New York City kosher eateries, including Abigael’s on Broadway, Don’t Tell Mama, and the Garden of Eat-In also installed electronic menus in April. Chaim Kirschner, the co-owner of the Brooklyn-based Garden of Eat-In, is hoping that having an electronic menu on iPads in the restaurant will bring more computer-loving children.

“If kids want to come here, it will increase business,” he says.

While some restaurant owners said they will have paper and electronic menus available, others plan to eliminate the old-fashioned menu – and order-taking waiters – eventually.

Several companies have jumped on the electronic-menu idea to expand its horizons.

Titbit, a company with a research and design team in India, makes an application that allows diners to search through wines based on price, country, and year. The food menu can also be searched, allowing vegetarians to see only the meatless options, for example. Electronic menus can even feature videos of the chef preparing various dishes, said Nese Arslan, Titbit’s vice president of business development.

“It depends how you want to use it. The possibilities are endless,” she said.

A Florida-based company, Uptown Network, has installed electronic menus at 20 restaurants and developed an application that allows people to load an unlimited number of menus onto their own iPads, says CEO Jack Serfass. The application, called Personal Somellier, is available on Apple’s App Store. 

“There is no doubt that in the next five years, there will be more interactive menus than paper menus, and eventually the paper menu will go away,” Mr. Serfass says. 

Waiters, however, are not on the verge of extinction, he says. Most of his clients are upscale establishments that will keep their waiters no matter what. "They still want to make sure the server is part of the dining experience," he says. 

Besides, not all electronic menus on the market right now are as advanced as the Presto. Many devices don't have credit-card slots or allow customers to place their order simply by touching the screen. Some devices are simply used as a new way to display items on the menu.

But Mr. Suri of E la Carte says that some restaurants cut their waitstaff by about 20 percent after switching to the Presto – while others chose to eliminate servers completely. 

As for Mr. Kirschner of the Garden of Eat-In, he says he will keep waiters because the electronic menus "are expensive items that I can't put on every table."

And he still has his reservations about the technology. He notes that the digital menu is not popular with older customers, and he worries that they will become a distraction for younger customers. 

“We don’t want people staying too long, either. If they finish eating, they could just keep playing and playing" on the iPad, he says, adding that he has so far only invested in a few to see how they work out. 

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