Restaurant Tablets Shine as QSR Drive-Thrus Evolve

Tablets have helped change and evolve the current dining experience, giving concepts a way of line-busting during peak hours and keep the lines moving despite fewer staff members working.

Last spring and summer, when restaurants were temporarily closed or operating with severe restrictions, quick-service and fast-casual restaurants turned to tablets to help them get by. Dine-in options were largely unavailable, and with few other options available to them, POS (Point of Sale) tablets quickly helped concepts keep serving customers and keep the lights on when they needed to most. 

Tablet point of sale systems are nothing new, but they’ve seen a resurgence in the industry since the early part of 2020 in tandem with the drive-thru. To their credit, tablets have helped change and evolve the current dining experience, giving concepts a way of line-busting during peak hours and keep the lines moving despite fewer staff members working. 

“You’re seeing a spike in tablet interest because of the pandemic,” Tony Rampacek, Senior Director of Product Management with PAR, said. “Restaurants tried to figure out how to serve their guests right with the lobbies shut down, so they had to do curbside. If they had a drive-thru, they were better than not having one, so tablets became of interest again for concepts that needed drive-thru capabilities in a hurry.” 

Although brands like Chick-fil-A and In-n-Out Burger have been utilizing tablets at their locations for years, others jumped in quickly to set up programs and get the ball rolling. Some, like Fazoli’s, used tablets to speed up the order-taking process and keep customers happy.

Breaking Up the Bottlenecks

In most QSR (Quick Service Restaurant) restaurants, there are several places where bottlenecks could occur: the countertop, the drive-thru, and the kitchen. Restaurant POS tablets help lessen those choke points, keeping the flow of orders moving and giving the kitchen the chance to stay ahead of possible backups before they have a chance to occur. 

Rampacek says that for brands like Chick-fil-A, where line-busters are used to quickly get people moving, they’ve managed to perfect the art of the drive-thru. 

“They have invested wholeheartedly in using tablets and are running drive-thrus better than I’ve seen anybody else do it,” Rampacek said. “Instead of having a single order point at a speaker post, you’re going out, and you’re face-to-face with the guests. Your experience is better.” 

In some cases, the fast-food chicken chain sends out up to 4 employees to take orders during peak hours and funnel them into the kitchen. That’s why the chain often serves more than 100 cars an hour, even during its busiest times. 

The chain attributes its success to what it calls “Face-to-Face Ordering,” which encourages staff to engage with customers directly to take their orders while waiting in line. Not only does this result in satisfied customers, but employees can ensure they have accurate orders. Because the order takers take detailed vehicle descriptions, the right person gets the right food. 

But what happens in the kitchen when so many orders are being pumped in through restaurant tablets? Rampecek says the massive pile or orders may not actually be an issue. 

“Yes, you’re moving your chokepoint from one area to another, but can your kitchen handle better volume than a single speaker post or single window?” Rampacek explained. “Now, instead of three cars back, you may be eight cars back. I think there’s a little more time to recover, and then you know you have the capacity.”

Smaller Restaurants Mean More Tablets

Recently, many restaurant brands have started experimenting with a smaller footprint to pack more into a tinier location. McDonald’s and KFC have already confirmed their intention to develop seatless restaurants, which reduces their footprint, along with operating and real estate costs. 

It doesn’t end there, though. Most QSRs are pushing for smaller locations but are choosing to beef up their stores with more advanced drive-thrus, delivery options, and food lockers for guests to grab and go. Typically, drive-thrus will power about 70% of a concept’s fast-food sales. However, when the pandemic set in, the drive-thru became a bonafide star. 

“Tablets are forcing our customers to think about how they redesign their restaurants,” Rampacek explained. “Smaller lobbies and more focus on the drive-thru. So, instead of having 50 seats, you have 15. You have less real estate, making tablets more important in that environment.” 

Tablets keep employees engaged with customers, providing the same feel as an in-store ordering kiosk or countertop terminal. They can also maintain order accuracy, something guests don’t always experience with a standard drive-thru speaker box. Additionally, there is anecdotal evidence suggesting that tablets can help generate additional upsell opportunities.

How Do Restaurants Prepare for A Tablet Rollout?

Adding a tablet POS system to your restaurant’s operations is a simple process since it’s just another variation of the usual POS terminal. But operators need to consider several aspects of the drive-thru before jumping in: 

  • weather and brightness 
  • Wi-Fi signal strength 
  • employee comforts and safety 

So, why does the weather count? While some areas don’t see the sun all that often *cough* upstate New York *cough*, other parts of the country are bathed in the sun’s beautiful rays. Depending on how bright and sunny it is, your tablet may not perform as well as intended. Images could be washed out, or the tablet can quickly lose its charge because staff will constantly need to crank up the brightness. 

“A typical iPad or standard consumer tablet averages about a 250 to 300 Nit Rating, but it’s going to wash out in bright light,” Rampacek said. “Either that or you’re going to have to crank the brightness up, which then affects battery life. If you have an 800 Nit rated screen, which is ‘outdoor-readable,’ the image is crisper in the sun than a consumer-grade tablet. You’re also not increasing the brightness like you would on a consumer-grade tablet, which is going to give you better battery life.” 

Besides the sun impacting how employees see the screen, consumer-grade tablets are usually much weaker than those designed for the restaurant environment. Sure, some brands do well with an iPad protected by an OtterBox or similar casing, but they still can’t prevent someone from dropping it face down on the ground and shattering the screen. Rugged tablets are built with protection in mind, maintaining high drop and water resistance ratings. All in all, they’re ready to take a beating. 

Additionally, tablets have a tough time sending orders to the kitchen if the Wi-Fi signal is terrible. Rampacek says investing in a Wi-Fi booster or similar product can extend the range of your tablets and, in turn, help you serve more customers faster. 

“You don’t just buy a tablet, and then all of a sudden, you’re good to go,” Rampacek explained. “You have to make sure have the infrastructure in place to actually make this work. You have to have good wireless internet outside.” 

Finally, the climate employees work in can make a dramatic difference in how well a tablet program works. In some southern states, Chick-fil-A has installed canopies with fans to keep employees cool on sweltering summer days, and heaters to keep them warm in the evenings. 

Not every brand will go as far as Chick-fil-A to keep its staff comfortable, but even providing them with a coat during chilly weather or a place to stand out from the rain can work wonders for morale. Even setting a time limit for staff to be outside can make a difference.

The Future is Mobile

We’ve already seen how online ordering can drastically change the restaurant environment, and the same can be said for the rapid adoption of tablets. Drive-thrus saved restaurants during the pandemic, and despite giving up some share to in-store ordering, they’re likely to be the preferred method of ordering for years to come. 

Tablets make the ordering process simple, fast, and accurate while giving guests the face-to-face interactions they expect from more traditional ordering methods. For employees, tablets offer a critical opportunity to upsell in line, ensure orders are correct and do more with fewer employees overall. 

When the name of the game is protecting the bottom line, a well-executed tablet program is a worthwhile addition to any restaurant POS system.

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