May 31, 2009
Touch & order
Self-ordering, interactive menus let you choose your meals without having to call for the waitress
By Huang Lijie
Self-ordering menus that 'talk' might sound like an invention in a fictional world until you step into Ebisboshi Shotengai, a Japanese food hall at Iluma in Victoria Street.
The newly opened restaurant boasts seven dining brands under one roof and five of them, including Menya Manpei, a ramen outlet from Hokkaido, share a common seating area with a capacity of 230 guests.
The menu in the common dining space looks like any other laminated paper menu except it is embedded with barcodes next to pictures of the dishes, which diners tap on using a stylus to place their orders.
The stylus then reads out the order in English, and upon confirmation, it is sent via a wireless network to the kitchen. The food is served to the table by wait staff.
This novel way of ordering food at a restaurant is the latest example of how eateries here are experimenting with new technology to enhance the dining experience for guests.
Indeed, self-ordering, interactive menus have been around in Singapore as early as 1999 and a pioneer in this field is Japanese sushi chain Sakae Sushi.
It introduced interactive menus displayed on flat computer screens, which diners can browse and order from using a mouse. These screens are located along the sushi conveyor belt in the restaurant.
Mr Douglas Foo, 39, chief executive officer of Apex-Pal International, which owns the sushi chain, says: 'The idea came about because we had more than 200 items on our menu and the market was quite new to Japanese food then. So I thought, why don't we create a simple computer system where customers can click on an item and get information on the dish, the ingredients used and what the food looks like.'
As such technology was relatively new here, its team of designers had to create the ordering system from scratch. The programme has been upgraded over the years to be more user-friendly and it is now running on its fifth version.
For both Ebisboshi Shotengai and Sakae Sushi, the self-ordering system is also meant to increase the service efficiency of the wait staff.
Mr Koki Matsuda, 46, managing director of Komars Enterprise, which owns Ebisboshi Shotengai, says: 'Wait staff usually spend about 35 per cent of their time taking orders. With this self-ordering system, however, they have more time to focus on serving food to diners faster.'
He adds that this system also shortens the ordering process because customers do not have to wait for staff to take their orders.
Consequently, with both ordering and service times reduced, the table turnovers and sales takings increase.
A desire to up service efficiency was also what led Japanese restaurant Tampopo in Liang Court to install an innovative self-ordering and automatic food delivery system from Japan last year.
A touch- screen menu, available at 10 booth seats in a section of the restaurant, lets diners send their orders for sushi and sashimi to the kitchen electronically so that the food may be prepared immediately.
When it is ready, it is placed on a plate that travels along a glass-enclosed conveyor belt which winds its way around the booths. A chip embedded in the plate allows it to recognise the table that ordered the food and move off the belt to deliver the food onto the correct table.
These technologies, however, do not come cheap.
It cost $160,000 to set up the wireless self-ordering system at Ebisboshi Shotengai, while the interactive menus at Sakae Sushi cost a five-figure sum to install at each outlet, according to Mr Foo.
For Mr Clive Siek, director of Kitchen Mogu Mogu, a casual restaurant in Far East Plaza, a touch-screen ordering machine was installed in the restaurant in 2007 to cut down on manpower cost.
The machine, which looks like a vending machine, has a touch-screen interface that lets customers send their orders straight to the kitchen, thus minimising the need for wait staff. Cash is slotted into the machine for payment and there is no need for a cashier.
When the food is ready, the kitchen calls out the number that is printed on the receipt for the customer to collect the food at the counter.
Diners, it seems, are embracing this new technology.
Mr Takaaki Takagi, owner of Tampopo, says more than 80 per cent of his reservations request for booth seats with access to the touch-screen ordering system.
Mr Melvin Teo, 46, a sales director who was dining with his family at Ebisboshi Shotengai, found its newfangled self-ordering menu a breeze to use.
He says: 'It is simple enough and user-friendly. Also, children these days are used to all this technology and my son found the ordering process interesting.'