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At uWink, a new restaurant in Woodland Hills, Calif., all it takes is a few taps on a touch screen computer to place your order. You can select the Rock and Roll Quesadilla or the Purple Haze Pizza with Wild Mushrooms. And while you wait, you can play video games on the monitor -- either alone or by inviting others in the restaurant to join in. But the wait is never too long. The "wireless waiters" pipe orders directly into the kitchen so that your food and drinks are brought to the table without delay.
"Any other restaurant I go to now feels real slow," says Nolan Bushnell, founder of uWink. Bushnell is perhaps better known as the mastermind behind both Atari video games and the Chuck E. Cheese restaurants. "People increasingly like to consume media as an adjunct to their other experiences. How many people go to a sports bar and eat their burger and watch a ball game?"
As technology permeates all facets of our daily lives, it's no wonder that new gadgets, gizmos, and high-tech experiences are being served up on the menus of restaurants near you. Some of these technological innovations, like the touch-screen menu, are designed to appeal to the immediate gratification generation, by eliminating waiters and wait time. Other technologies target identity theft. For example, wireless credit card terminals eliminate the risky business of turning your credit card over to a server who disappears with it for five or 10 minutes.
Here's a sampling of menu items at high-tech eateries of both the present and the (near) future:
Appetizers: multimedia on the half shell
Legal Sea Foods -- long the destination for New England lobster and other fare -- now operates Legal Test Kitchen, or LTK. Located in downtown Boston, the new restaurant is billed as "what dining in the 21st century looks like. Here, you can surf the Web or watch TV tableside, on portable plasma screens. Or dock your iPod at the table for some mood music.
More than ever, we seek a customized and entertaining experience when we dine out. The on-demand generation wants a full assortment of multimedia access anytime and anywhere we dine. "This is not like you're going in and playing Halo and being a screen zombie. A lot of our games will have the whole restaurant playing together," Bushnell says of uWink, which is in the process of opening up more branches in California and licenses its entertainment technology to other establishments. "We are just the tip of the iceberg. There's much more to come."
Main course: ordering à la computer
At 's Bagger's, in Nuremberg, Germany, you won't encounter any waiters at all. The fully automated restaurant is billed as the first sit-down eatery in the world where computers and machines have replaced ordering and table service. Like at uWink, you order your meal via a touch screen. But at 's Bagger's, no server delivers your entrée. The kitchen is on the second floor, and gravity helps propel drinks and dishes down a rail system to the proper table.
Touch-screen ordering is gaining ground in the restaurant business for a few reasons. The technology has matured. Microsoft, for example, now touts its new "Surface" computing system -- which basically takes the functionality of a PC and builds it into a touch screen table -- as perfect for restaurants, because it provides everything from the ordering of food to payment of the bill. Restaurants are also looking at labor costs. "Anything we can do to help deliver an acceptable and efficient experience without using labor is necessary," Bushnell says. Can robot servers be far behind? One aspect that may be appealing to customers: You don't have to leave a tip.
For dessert: secure payments
Crabby Bills, a chain of seafood restaurants in Florida, wanted to cut down on the time waiters spend walking back and forth between tables and the cash register. So the chain is experimenting with handheld payment terminals that waiters bring to the table to allow you to swipe your own cards. "Every minute counts," says Luis Campuzano, a company official. Many restaurant customers agree -- but for another reason. They worry that they're exposed to identity theft and fraud when servers disappear with their cards to process payments. "It is the last venue in the U.S. where you give your credit card to somebody, and they walk away with it and don't come back for three to five minutes," says Robbie Lopez, senior vice president for Verifone, the payment terminal maker, which sells wireless devices to restaurants. Verifone points to research from the Mercator Advisory Group that found 70 percent of credit card "skimming” -- the theft of credit card numbers and other information in the course of running a legitimate transaction -- occurs in restaurants. Another type of fraud is "tip fraud," in which servers increase the tip amount on a charge receipt without your knowledge. With the handheld devices, Lopez says, "You can leave the card with the customer, and they add the tip amount and swipe it themselves."
That's one reason restaurant goers needn't fear the technological revolution now underway: At least the payment process won't give you indigestion.
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