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The flat-screen tablets sit on a stand at each table and have a 20-hour battery life. Guests can also play games on the tablets, with both free and paid options available.

Perhaps most importantly, the tablets have been “future proofed” with features such as cameras, Bluetooth and mobile capabilities to allow Applebee’s to expand on technological opportunities in future. Down the road, Applebee’s could use the devices as tabletop jukeboxes, for example, or to sell gift cards. Video streaming is also an option, which would allow guests to watch a sports game at the table or enable kids to watch cartoons.

The devices can also collect immediate feedback on the guest experience, allowing the restaurant operator a chance to respond right away if warranted.

Applebee’s franchise operators that have tested the devices say they improve guest experience from both a convenience and speed-of-service standpoint.

A family experiments with one of Applebee's new tablets

Greg Flynn, chief executive of Applebee’s largest franchisee Apple American Group, started using the tablets in his 12,000-square foot flagship restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco in November.

“The restaurant is so big and so busy, and the distances are so far, that it really addresses what is often the most common problem for guests: not being able to find their server,” said Flynn, who plans to use the technology in all of his 450 Applebee’s.

The move by Applebee’s comes a few months after casual-dining competitor Chili’s Grill & Bar announced it would roll out Ziosk tabletop tablets to all 823 company-owned locations in the U.S. by mid 2014. Franchisees across Chili’s 1,600-unit system have been given the option using the devices.

The use of touch-screen tablets is catching on across the industry as the technology improves and becomes more affordable, and consumers are increasingly warming to the idea. McDonald’s, for example, is reportedly testing the use of iPads in restaurants, allowing guests to build their burger from a selection of about 20 toppings using the touch-screen menu.

Other concepts are also testing or using similar tabletop technology, including Genghis Grill, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, Buffalo Wild Wings, Chevys Fresh Mex and Uno Chicago Grill.

Applebee’s parent DineEquity Inc. is also looking at applying the technology to sister brand IHOP, said Archer, a move that may depend on how it goes for Applebee’s.

Accommodating a restaurant chain as large as Applebee’s is unprecedented, Archer said. “Nobody’s figured out how to scale this kind of thing yet.”

Contact Lisa Jennings at lisa.jennings@penton.com.
Follow her on Twitter @livetodineout