Order Your Next Burger on a Tablet Computer from E La Carte

4/19/11Follow @wroush

If you’ve got a touchscreen-based tablet computer, odds are you’ve noticed the way it speeds up tasks like managing e-mail. Doctors and other professionals like them too, for browsing or entering information in the workplace. And now the devices are starting to show up in a more surprising setting—your local burger joint.

E la Carte, a Palo Alto, CA-based startup backed by Y Combinator and prominent Boston and Silicon Valley angel investors, went public today with technology that lets restaurant guests browse pictorial menus, send their orders to the kitchen, and pay their bill from a tablet computer. These aren’t iPads or Galaxy Tabs we’re talking about—they’re splash-proof, drop-proof “Presto” tablets custom-built for restaurant environments, with 18 hours of battery life and built-in credit card readers. E la Carte co-founder Rajat Suri, a former MIT student, says that in beta testing, the system has shaved 7 minutes off the duration of the average meal, meaning restaurants can turn over tables faster. Just as important, guests who use the devices spend 10 to 12 percent more on average (and tip better, too).

“There is not a lot of innovation in restaurants. They’ve been pretty much the same since medieval times,” says Suri. That’s partly because outside engineers don’t understand how restaurants really work—the punishing physical environment, the slim profit margins, and the like. But as part of his product research, Suri actually worked as a waiter in several Cambridge, MA, restaurants, and he says he’s confident the startup has the ingredients of his system right.

“Within three to five years, you will see this technology on 80 percent of restaurant tables,” Suri says. “There are just too many advantages for restaurants not to do it.”

Since beginning a beta test program in February, the company put its devices into 20 restaurants across the U.S., including the SliderBar burger restaurant in downtown Palo Alto. Establishments pay E la Carte a monthly subscription fee to rent the devices and get access to the startup’s Web-based backend, which transmits orders to chefs in the kitchen, handles payments, allows managers to upload new menu items, and so forth. The total expenses comes to “far less than $100 per month per unit,” according to Suri, who says restaurants can quickly recover the system’s cost through increased orders.

Suri started E la Carte in Cambridge in 2009 (our editor-in-chief Bob Buderi met him when the company was still in residence at Dogpatch Labs Cambridge) and moved the company to Silicon Valley last year after the team won admission to the summer class at the Y Combinator venture incubator program. Since finishing the program, the company has staffed up significantly—it has a team of 15 engineers, mostly recent MIT grads—and has won “north of $1 million” in angel backing from investors in Boston and Silicon Valley, according to Suri.

The Boston contingent includes John Landry of Lead Dog Ventures, Roy Rodenstein (Going.com/AOL), and Dave Balter (BzzAgent), while the Bay Area investors include Dave McClure (500 Startups), Joshua Schachter (ex-Delicious/Yahoo), Paul Buchheit (ex-Google), and Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian (ex-Reddit). Executives from Applebees and other restaurant chains have also invested, according to Suri.

Putting computer-based ordering systems on restaurant tables isn’t actually a new idea. Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese’s, launched a device called the “uWink Media Bistro” in 2007, but the large CRT-style screens never caught on and uWink evolved into an entertainment software company called Tapcode. High-end restaurants like Aureole in Las Vegas have also experimented with tablet-PC wine lists.

But until recently, the technology to make table-based ordering practical “has not been around,” says Suri. It took the advent of compact, versatile, Wi-Fi-enabled touchscreen devices like the iPad to show what was possible in restaurants, he says. “You can order, pay, tip, play games, and provide feedback,” says Suri. “There are [mobile] apps that do these different things, but we put them all together and make it easy to use and make it cheap, and that is the key.”

Suri emphasizes that restaurant wait staff won’t be rendered redundant by E la Carte’s technology—they just won’t have to deal with the most mechanical parts of meal transactions. “If guests order on the system, that gives servers the opportunity to provide hospitality in other ways,” Suri says. “We take the boring part away and allow them to relate to their customers better.”

And perhaps earn a higher tip in the process. The E la Carte tablets provide a selection of pre-set tip amounts, all the way up to 22 percent. From beta testing, the startup has found that guests using the devices tip 8 percent more on average.

But the biggest benefit of the system, Suri says, is that it encourages impulse buys—that extra Coke that you might not have ordered if you had been forced to flag down a waiter. “It’s easy to push a couple of buttons and order a soda for $2.50,” says Suri. “Their cost is about 14 cents, so the margin is very high”—which helps makes up for more expensive items like kitchen equipment, cooks, and (now) tablet computers.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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