The food world is wholeheartedly embracing mobile technology, using smartphones and tablets to book tables, take orders, handle inventory, e-mail receipts - and not just to elevate the coolness quotient. They are money-savers in an industry that subsists on low profit margins and high turnover.
Owners Tim Mulvey and Mike Oraschewsky set up the wireless system at Conshohocken Cafe this year, buying an app called POSLavu and installing it on small iPod Touch units and an iPad.
After each dish is tapped onto the screen, the order is sent to a small printer in front of the cooks. "It cuts off a half-step" for servers, Mulvey said. Accuracy has risen dramatically, meaning less food is wasted.
"Everyone is blown away when they see this," said Oraschewsky, pointing out the incongruity of the cafe's kitschy, mix-and-match furnishings and the efficient use of IEEE 802.11, or WiFi. Some customers ask to tap in their own orders.
One table of patrons was turned off. "They assumed [the server] was just texting" and not paying attention, Mulvey said.
A restaurant point-of-sale system - a flat-screen computer system that syncs ordering, operations, and sales - can cost $20,000 or more. Before the volunteer Conshohocken Business Development Commission helped the owners set up their business, Mulvey and Oraschewsky inherited a complex system that they never bothered to set up.
They learned of this new generation of point-of-sale, in which a restaurateur can buy a few tablets or iPod Touch devices, install the apps, attach small printers, and get by for about $3,000. More-advanced systems tie in credit-card processing.
New servers can jump right in. "The learning curve was instantaneous," said Oraschewsky.
You see tablets everywhere, particularly in cafes, such as Rotisseur, Spread Bagelry, Soup Kitchen Cafe, and Wedge & Fig. At Village Whiskey near Rittenhouse Square, hostesses use a free app called NoWait to alert guests by text message that their table is ready.
Kevin Garabedian runs every aspect of Hot Diggity, his hot dog cafe on South Street, from a single metal-encased iPad mounted by his cash drawer.
Most restaurants limit the devices' use to employees, because - at about $200 for an iPod Touch and $500 for an iPad - they fear pilferage.
Spread Bagelry co-owner Larry Rosenblum, who replaced a balky electronic cash register with an iPad, is not too concerned. He recently bought three Android devices marketed by Philadelphia Media Network to enable customers to read the newspapers.
Just as newspapers are migrating to the mobile world, so has the homespun farmer's market.
Matt Ridgway, whose meat business is known as PorcSalt, attaches a credit-card swiper to his iPhone so he can process orders. He said the setup had boosted sales dramatically.
"When you think about all the customers who aren't carrying cash . . . . Now I'm not losing that sale," he said at Rittenhouse Square, where he sells charcuterie.
The swiper was free from Intuit, which processes his transactions for about $15 a month. Each sale is transmitted securely to his computer, which also e-mails a receipt to the customer and logs order details into his Intuit business software, QuickBooks.
The larger companies in the point-of-sale field are buying in, too. MICROS Systems Inc., of Columbia, Md., one of the giants, is working on an app that enables diners to pay with a smartphone, and also on software to put digital menus on iPads.
Tom Konidaris, a veteran restaurateur who owns Zesty's in Manayunk, said he had spent more than $100,000 on point-of-sale equipment over the years.
About two months ago, he invested in 10 iPads, two iPod Touches, and an iPhone, and bought the $3,495 platinum app package from POSLavu. The devices display his menus and photos and list ingredients in each item.
Konidaris said he did keep one local point-of-sale terminal from his old system, to swipe gift cards.
Han Chiang, who owns three Han Dynasty restaurants, said he plans to open a fourth, franchise restaurant by the end of the year in University City that will be equipped with tablets. While they wait, customers will be able to use the tablets to communicate, or perhaps to watch kitchen action via webcam. The device will offer recommendations for the timid, allow them to place their order, and, with a tap, also will summon help.
Chiang said it diners will be able to opt out of using the tablet and order off a printed menu carried by a manager...
Who will carry a tablet.
Contact Michael Klein at firstname.lastname@example.org.