Want your beer and wings faster? Order on the iPad, please

Pass the buffalo wings and the iPad.

IPads are popping up in the military, on car showfloors and at wineries and are now being tested out at customer tables by the Buffalo Wild Wings grill and bar chain.

Nestled in a rugged case from integrator Hubworks, the 9.7-in. iPad is being tested for customers to make food and drink orders from their tables. They can also use the tablets to jump online to check out Facebook, Twitter and play interactive games.

The 830-store Buffalo Wild Wings chain is about to launch a second phase of the iPad pilot program at a Minneapolis location after working out technical kinks at a suburban Toronto site, said Tim Murphy, director of international business for the chain.

"Ultimately, we are trying to use the technology to enhance the customer experience," he said in an interview. "People are familiar with iPads, iPhones and Android tablets, so this would enhance that."

The chain hasn't decided whether to combine purchasing from the device with purely entertainment uses, something it hopes to measure in its tests, Murphy said.

If the chain decides the device can be used for entertainment, it might sell advertising on the tablets, license popular games or even design custom-built games suited to its audience and brand, he said.

Buffalo Wild Wings doesn't expect the devices to replace waiters. Instead, if customers make their own orders, waiters will be freed up to interact more with their guests and promote food and drinks or the in-bar live trivia games, Murphy said.

Other companies make table-top ordering devices used by some other restaurant chains, but most are smaller devices and some are fixed to a spot on the table, Murphy noted. He said he evaluated products by Ziosk, which provides a table-top surface touchscreen, and E la Carte, which uses a Presto tablet with a 7-in. screen.

Hubworks has included a charging capability and credit card reader in the rugged case, and has enhanced battery efficiency so that a single unit can last up 12 to 15 hours before being placed in a charging dock, Murphy said. Hubworks minimized the power drain with a screensaver and other features.

The Hubworks case doesn't cover the glass screen of the iPads, and waiters must wipe them down after every use to remove fingerprints. "We've not added a protective layer over the screen, but we're evaluating if we need one," Murphy said.

Hubworks sells each 8GB iPad with the case, a magnetic credit card reader slot and extended charging capability for $750; it also offers integration with point-of-sale systems selling its software as a service and charging licensing fees, said Aaron Gabriel, vice president of sales and marketing and co-founder of Hubworks Interactive. Units can be mounted to tables, but Buffalo Wild Wings has included an RFID security system to keep the devices from being stolen, he said.

Murphy said that there were complications integrating the iPad with its existing point-of-sales system, so the chain may simply have customers order their wings and drinks through a Web-based ordering system already in place. That system is used by customers who order food for pick-up.

Depending on how the trials go, Hubworks believes restaurants could offer more functions, including video chat using the newer iPad 2 at each table.

Why the iPad?P Partly because the device is well-known and larger than others on the market, Murphy said. Plus, many customers come to the sports bars in groups and stay for several hours at a time.

In the first test, while men in a group typically watched a football or hockey game, women in the group would pick up the iPad and launch Facebook, Murphy said. "We have a very captive audience with good sales volume in our restaurants, so we view this iPad as a way for customers to stay connected socially and not have to use their own device."

If the device cuts costs through advertising or offers greater restaurant efficiencies, so much the better. Those factors will be among those Buffalo Wild Wings evaluates.

"We have a lot to work out," Murphy added. "Nobody knows where this is heading."

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