By Katie Little, CNBC.com
Classic American comfort food is going high tech at one California restaurant chain.
A customer browses the menu offerings at a Stacked restaurant in California. At its three locations, Stacked Restaurants offers customers the opportunity to craft their meals and then pay for them on iPads - an amenity that is catching on among restaurant operators across the country.
At Stacked, diners can choose to stack their burgers, pizzas, salads, and plates of macaroni and cheese with a range of toppings.
It's a simple concept, but the ordering process can become unwieldy. Paul Montenko, the chain's co-founder, said he and his partner began to think of alternative methods that would equip diners with a way to pick among the numerous combinations without holding up the line.
"If it was a fast-casual restaurant where you go up to a counter and order from a cashier, there were too many choices," he said. "It would be cumbersome at the least - frustrating and stressful at the worst."
Instead, the company invested in 230 iPads at a cost of more than $1 million, including technology expenses, for its three locations, which all opened in 2011.
David Matthews, chief information officer for the National Restaurant Association, said he is seeing growth in the use of tablets in a variety of dining establishments.
"We're seeing it in fine dining for the benefits of menu flexibility," he said. "We're seeing it in fast-casual for productivity because servers can leave the menus. And we're seeing it in QSRs (quick-service restaurants) because it's a line-busting technique and it moves people through the process much easier."
Although Stacked did not receive a discount, Apple does offer discounts on a case-by-case basis for large orders. The company also offers consulting and support services for businesses in addition to financing options on its website.
Several third-party companies, including Square, orderTalk and Shared Marketing Services, have also entered the space with applications designed for iPads.
Stacked is far from the only restaurant betting that the same product that has brought big profits for Apple will also boost its bottom line.
One fine-dining restaurant group, ThinkFoodGroup, has offered consumers the flexibility of perusing iPad wine lists for more than a year. It now has 20 tablets at its Jaleo restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas. Lucas Paya, the company's wine director, said the technology has made it easier for patrons to select wines.
"They are really user friendly, and there is a lot of content with special sommelier notes and images to help guests choose the perfect wine," he said. "With the iPads, we have the ability to quickly make changes to the menu."
According to the restaurant association, 52 percent of consumers surveyed would use an electronic payment system while nearly four out of 10 said they would use an electronic ordering system. Another 25 percent of chefs predicted that tablet computers would become the top technology trend this year.
In 2011, tablets were used by restaurants, in order of decreasing frequency, for ordering; displaying menus; communicating between the customer, kitchen and server; exhibiting wine lists with descriptive videos and graphics; and for paying bills, Matthews said.
Payments by tablet are being fueled by consumers who want an extra level of security and operators who wish to speed up the payment process. This form of payment is already commonplace in Europe and parts of the Pacific Rim, he added.
"While that was last year probably at the bottom of the list, we believe it's rapidly growing and will certainly get to at least the top three next year," he said about paying by tablet.
Stacked is still working on ironing out the system's inefficiency kinks. So far, the company has combated the slowness that can result from filling so many detailed orders by installing a display system that shows more ready-made choices, and by increasing the number of burger-making stations.
"The biggest challenge we encountered was about 95 percent of customer orders are either made from scratch or modified in some way, so that put a lot of pressure on the kitchen to be efficient and accurate," Montenko said.
Limiting consumer choices to some degree cuts down on the combinations of these orders. While diners can stack their entrees, there are constraints on how many toppings that they can pick.
"We protect people from themselves because there is only so much a burger, salad or pizza can hold and still make sense," he said.
Other concerns - that consumers would damage the iPads or like them so much that they walk away with them - have so far not been an issue.
"They're in a pretty secure frame," said Montenko. "You'd almost have to try to break them. None of them have dropped or broken since we opened them a year ago."
Although the iPads are not fixed to the table and can be passed around by patrons, the company does employ additional security measures to prevent theft. Montenko declines to elaborate further on the security precautions.
The company, which Montenko said was on track to post yearly revenue between $3 million and $4 million per location, plans to open one to two restaurants in 2012 and another four to five in 2013. Although the partners have not decided whether to franchise, he said it is a growth strategy that they are seriously considering.
"At some point, we would like to go to other markets," he said. "We are hoping to build a national brand."
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By Katie Little, CNBC.com
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