Chili’s Grill & Bar said Tuesday it would roll out tabletop tablets to all 823 U.S. company-owned restaurants by the middle of 2014, giving guests the option of ordering, playing games and paying at the table.

After a five-month test of various tabletop devices in 28 Chili’s restaurants, executives of the casual-dining brand said dessert sales increased as much as 20 percent and sales of items like coffee saw sizable jumps. Test markets included Jacksonville, Fla.; San Diego; and Dallas.

Franchisees in the nearly 1,600-unit chain are making the decision to include the devices in their own locations, Edithann Ramey, Chili’s vice president of marketing, said in an interview Monday. Some franchise groups have been testing similar devices since 2011.

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Each Chili’s unit will have about 50 of the seven-inch tabletop devices, the company said. Chili’s chose Dallas-based Ziosk as its vendor.

The tabletop devices can take menu orders, accept credit card payments and let customers play 99-cent video games, the revenue from which is shared between the vendor and the brand. The chain, owned by Dallas-based Brinker International Inc., currently has tabletop tablets in about 200 locations.

Ramey spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about the rollout.

How will the tablets positively impact business?

These units [tablets] are supposed to do something for the business and something for the consumer. We wanted them to be menu merchandisers. We wanted them to be entertainment units. We are a place where people come to connect and spend time with each other. You can play games on them. You can view the news. The most exciting things are around menu merchandising and educating the consumer on what we have to offer. There’s also the ability to order the food and beverages from it. They can control their own destiny. The whole experience improves if they can pay at the table as quickly as possible and order as they wanted to.

What were the results from the test?

We saw increases in PPA [per person average check]. People are buying more food and add-ons like desserts and drinks at the table. They don’t order their first alcoholic drinks through the machine. We have to ID them. After that, they can order a second. We saw double-digit increases in dessert sales during test.

What were other benefits?

We depend on our email database to drive a significant amount of our traffic. We leverage it as a way to talk with the consumer and get them excited about new innovation in the brand. We’re constantly collecting email addresses. So from an Email Club perspective, we saw a material increase in signups over the period of the test.

And what about the games?

The gaming part is really nice, because it generated shared revenue, which was the cherry on top.

Did it offset the costs of the unit?

We don’t typically talk about how one works for the other, but we will tell you we don’t do anything that doesn’t return on the investment. We feel good about the installation, what it did for us and its ability to drive revenue for the company.

About 10 percent of tables buy a 99-cent video game. How is that charged and what other content do you foresee?

It’s a onetime charge, and you can play all you want. Content can be sky-is-the-limit. … Right now, we’re thinking about our gift-card season, for example. … Potentially, you could have a video right on the Ziosk that talks about gift cards.

Managing the rollout

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How will the rollout be managed?

Our intention is to be in all 823 company-owned restaurants by the first half of 2014. We have a significant and comprehensive cross-functional team here at Chili’s made up of all the departments that need to be involved — training, IT, marketing to develop the content and operators — who are constantly helping us think about what we didn’t think about. Together we have come up with a strategy, a template, to roll out it.

How about your franchise system?

I’m focused on the company-owned restaurants. We have a couple of franchisee partners that are engaging with the technology. But at this point, the others are learning or sharing their learnings. They will make the decision on whether or not they will participate.

How can you accommodate more units per table?

Some units sit at the bar and are not tied to a table. If you have kids like I do, when you go you might need an extra unit. My twins will go crazy if they don’t each have their own. We can do that. We can train for that too. It wasn’t without its bugs from a training perspective. Early on we had daily calls and later weekly calls to hear feedback from our team members and what guests would say.

What percentage of customers pay at the tabletop unit?

Fifty percent of the guests sitting at the tables are paying from the device. It helps facilitate their experience. We’re especially seeing it at lunch. It makes sense when they want a faster experience at lunch.

Why do you limit the amount of items the guest can order on the device?

We want to showcase the best of that day. If you start to overburden it with content, it doesn’t become easy to navigate. But one of the biggest [reasons] is that we still want lots of interaction between our server and the person at the table. This is meant to make the experience better, not to take over it.

Overall, how do you view the tabletop technology innovations?

I tell our operators it is probably one of the most exciting things to happen in merchandising in a very long time. We can showcase food and provide convenience.

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