When you stop and think about it, the restaurant song-and-dance routine we’ve all memorized is a bit strange: we take our seats, wait, order some drinks, wait, order some food (and some smalltalk with the waiter), wait, eat til we’re full, wait, become frustrated that our waiter has apparently gone on their break and look around until we catch the busboy’s eye and make the “Check, please?” hand gesture, furrow our brows as we attempt to do mental math (made all the more difficult by that lunchtime margarita), hand over a stack of credit cards adorned with post-its indicating how much to charge on each, sign our receipts (how much is 20%?), and, finally, get up to leave.
E la Carte, a Y Combinator-funded startup that’s making its big public debut today, is looking to mix things up a bit. The company is also announcing that it’s raised more than $1 million from investors including SV Angel, Dave McClure, Joshua Schachter, and Roy Rodenstein. They also have top executives from Applebees on board, which seems to be a strong vote of confidence.
Right now, there are around 20 restaurants, mostly in SF and Boston, that have small portable devices that look sort of like ugly iPad prototypes (except around 5 times thicker, much sturdier, and far less sleek) sitting on every table. Pick one up, and you’ll see an array of choices: a menu that lets you sift through the restaurant’s food and drink selection using a touch-screen interface, with appetizing photos of each item. There’s also a section for Games, including trivia and a drawing app. And, finally, there’s a tab for paying.
By now you’re probably getting a sense of what E la Carte is trying to do: it wants to make the restaurant experience more efficient, more user-friendly, and, believe it or not, more profitable for restaurants.
The ordering system works as you’d expect. After sitting down at your table and tapping the ‘Menu’ option, you can pick which items you’d like (it uses a shopping cart system so you can order multiple things at once). Each menu option can be customized using checkboxes (extra cheese, please, but I’ll pass on the tomatoes), and you can manually type in any special instructions.
Hit the confirm button, and your order will be wirelessly whisked away to the kitchen (E la Carte integrates with the major POS systems) — and it will even give you an estimate on how long you’ll have to wait for your food. In the mean time you can start playing games or talk with your friends (this is a restaurant, after all).
Once it comes time to pay, E la Carte’s software will be a godsend for anyone who hates divvying up checks. You can opt to evening split the bill among everyone, or, if you just want to pay for what you ate, you simply tap on each menu item that’s yours and the software will tell you what you owe. Swipe your card (the unit has an integrated card-reader), enter how much of a tip you want to leave (there are handy buttons for 15%, 20%, and so on), and you’re good to go.
Of course, such a system brings up plenty of questions — are waiters out of a job? And don’t some people actually like the aforementioned restaurant song-and-dance?
Founder Rajat Suri says that E la Carte is supplementary to the current restaurant experience. You don’t need to use it at any of the restaurants that offer it, and it doesn’t cut out waiters from the equation — they’re still free to help you choose your selections (sometimes they’ll even pick up the device themselves to help show off certain dishes). And he says that waiters actually want customers to pay using the devices, because they tend to get more tips since it’s so easy to tap that 20% button.
And waiters aren’t the only ones who stand to gain. Suri says that in early tests, restaurants have earned 10-12% more revenue overall because of the devices. The secret, he explains, is that E la Carte is great for upselling high-margin items. Order a burger, and the device can ask if you want a salad for only three dollars more. The high quality photos help makes this particularly effective.
E la Carte uses a monthly service model, though it isn’t sharing too many details on the specifics. Restaurants pay “less than $100″ per unit, per month — and they don’t pay anything for the devices up front. Unfortunately if you’re a restaurant-owner who is eager to try it out you’ll have to wait a bit — the service is in twenty locations so far and still has a long waiting list, though Suri expects it to open up more broadly in the next six months.
Suri also acknowledged that there are some restaurants who are looking at the system to see if it can make the restaurants more efficient to the point that they’d need to have fewer waiters on staff (though this doesn’t seem to be how E la Carte is marketing it).
It’s worth pointing out that while E la Carte is distributing these devices to restaurants, Suri says that it’s a software company (with 15 engineers) — the hardware was based on existing devices, though they made some small tweaks.