RALEIGH, N.C. -- In an increasingly digital world, your next glass of wine could come at the tap of an iPad.
Restaurants increasingly are turning to high-tech gadgets to offer everything from food and wine pairings to wireless ordering systems. They are hoping the investment will pay off as the technology attracts young customers and ups the ante for customer experience.
CholaNad, a Chapel Hill, N.C., restaurant that specializes in South Indian fare, arms its wait staff with iPods and iPads to take food orders.
Guests who need help deciding what to eat can browse photos of the dishes on the device to supplement the waiters' descriptions. When they are ready to order, the iPod's point-of-sale system application wirelessly sends the customer's order to the kitchen -- free of illegible handwriting.
Subash Panneerseluam, CholaNad's chef, said the system not only reduces the chances of wrong orders but it also makes the restaurant greener through reduced paper and food waste. He paid the retail price for his two iPads and 10 iPod Touches, plus $2,000 for the software license. He expects to recover the cost through reduced expenses on pens and paper.
"The world is turning toward technology, and we should update ourselves with that technology," he said. "We wanted to revolutionize the restaurant business with this."
Sarah Thomson, a server at CholaNad, said she never had worked with the iPod system at other jobs, though the technology is growing on her.
"It's nice. You don't get any hand cramps; you don't have to worry about writing super fast and not being able to read it," she said. "It's just very simple."
Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association, said the pressure to improve profit margins in an industry sensitive to the economy could be fueling the transition to digital. Some convenience stores, including the Sheetz chain of gas stations, already have crossed over to the technology through systems like ordering kiosks.
"You'll definitely see more technology usage in restaurants in the years ahead," Riehle said. "Quick service has been historically the technology leader, but table service is now following closely behind."
Hospitality Social creates applications for restaurants looking to go high-tech with their presentation. The company has created interactive wine and cocktail lists and pairings and is expanding its menu application. About 25 restaurants and chains use the technology, most notably Shula's Steak House.
Jack Serfass, Hospitality Social's CEO, said interactive features ultimately enhance the guest's experience, which can lead to repeat sales for a restaurant.
"If you have a choice of a paper menu in a dark restaurant that's hard to read and an interactive menu, your experience is going to be much better with an interactive menu," Serfass said.
Hospitality Social's applications aren't limited to restaurants looking to upgrade. Customers also can download them from an app store.
"You can actually see what you're going to see at a restaurant before you even go," Serfass said.
As for what customers actually think of the technology -- that depends on whom you ask.
One Restaurant in Durham, N.C., houses its wine lists on six iPads.
Reactions range from curious to skeptical, said Daniel Sartain, the general manager.
"It's a bit of a polarizing sort of effect," he said. "You get people that are just like, 'Wow, what a strange thing,' or, 'Can I check my email?' and everything in between."