When the iPad was introduced in late January, the tech world buzzed about the gadget’s possibilities and visionary applications. Two of Apple’s other signature products, the iPod and iPhone, sparked such revolutionary momentum that creative minds swirled with ideas on how the iPad, a larger, more comprehensive touch-screen device, might function in a world increasingly clamoring for portable and wireless.

Restaurant-industry types are beginning to let their imaginations wander as well. Many are eager to investigate how the iPad, one of the most anticipated devices in years and leader of the impending tablet rush, could improve restaurant systems, operations, margins, or efficiencies in the back or front of the house.

“The iPad is incredibly new, but there’s no question it’s going to help,” says Patrick Eldon, CEO of orderTalk Inc., a Texas-based provider of online ordering for quick-service chains like Jason’s Deli, Moe’s Southwest Grill, and Schlotzsky’s. “The technology is present and consumers are increasingly expecting these types of opportunities.”

Certainly, the iPad possesses some restaurant-friendly features. The touch-screen device runs more than 140,000 apps and has a washable screen, stand-up dock, and built-in WiFi connection. In addition, the iPad’s $499 starting price is competitive with many handheld POS units, and it boasts strong ease of use; a 9.7-inch, LED-backlit display; up to 10 hours of battery life; and the immeasurable yet unquestionable “It” factor. Launched in the U.S. on April 3, the iPad sold 300,000 units on its first day and more than 2 million in its first 60 days.

Cupertino, California–based Apple leans heavily on app developers across the country to enhance its device with an inventive energy that thrusts the product down new paths and into a vast array of industries, including the restaurant sector. In only a matter of years, the iPhone integrated a host of ordering and marketing capabilities and credit card payment apps. Many hold out similar—if not even more ambitious—hope for the iPad.

Most see the iPad’s greatest potential as a portable POS device. One national quick-service chain is testing the iPad as an order-taking device, thereby offering the possibility of tableside ordering and payment service to the quick-serve arena, a rare but customer-friendly feature. A smaller concept, 4food, included iPads as an order-taking device when it opened its first of 11 locations in New York in August.

“Customers and even staff are no longer limited to having to walk to a mounted system to get things done,” says Steven Wei of ChompStack, a Los Angeles company that builds software for restaurants. “Having the freedom to move around opens up a range of opportunities.”

Servers can walk around the dining room, input orders, and collect payment from individual customers. The food can be delivered directly to the table much as it is in many fast-casual establishments already.

“If you want to take this mobile solution and maximize its effectiveness, then you may need to change the way you do business,” says Sly Glass, director of sales for POS provider Hospitality Solutions International, which showcased its iPad POS system at May’s National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago. 

“But at the minimum,” Glass says, “restaurants can easily use the iPad as a line-busting tool to create efficiencies between ordering and payment during high traffic.” 

Others see promise in the iPad as an interactive, paperless menu. Though the up-front menuboard style of quick service makes many question the industry’s ability to integrate the iPad as a menu, fine-dining establishments are already beginning to incorporate it.

Mundo Global Tapas, a posh eatery in Sydney, Australia, introduced its iPad menu to customers in June. A custom-made app allows diners to browse the virtual pages of the restaurant’s menu, peruse dish images, read tasting notes, and then send their order into the kitchen. The iPad menu also suggests wine pairings for dishes and maintains stock levels, eliminating sold-out items from the on-screen menu. 

“It is unlikely the iPad will gain traction as a menu ordering system in [quick service],” says restaurant consultant Aaron Allen, who says the concept of iPad kiosks for quick serves is more reasonable. “Kiosks are great tools for providing menu information, such as nutrition, serving as a portal for submitting applications electronically at the unit level, and also a wide range of other creative in-store marketing uses.”

Indeed, many tout the iPad’s potential as a marketing tool, specifically in tandem with mobile ordering. Customers placing an order become registered users, giving operators a valuable data-mining tool. By gathering personal info on customers, restaurants can produce more targeted marketing messages. The same device can then offer guest surveys as well.

“At the moment, restaurants largely operate in the dark,” orderTalk’s Eldon says. “As you get to know customers, you’ll not only understand your own business better, but be able to better produce products to their liking.”

Others see promise for the iPad as a portable inventory device. Instead of restaurant staffers having to manually record product levels or scan bar codes, the iPad’s portability allows team members to directly record inventory data into a restaurant’s tracking system.

One South Carolina–based company is even testing an iPad hiring system for employees. The new PeopleMatter technology allows potential crew members to input their employment history, available work schedule, and even past military experience so chains can take advantage of the Worker’s Opportunity Tax Credit. All the information is securely stored, saving companies the headache of keeping track of archived I-9 forms.

But the question remains whether or not the iPad is realistic for the quick-service industry.

Unlike many retail-hardened POS terminals, an over-the-counter consumer device such as the iPad has not been tested to withstand a restaurant’s frenzied atmosphere, which will most certainly include drops and spills.

Furthermore, the iPad’s wireless signal can easily get tossed off track given the range of frequency waves that can infiltrate an establishment. Dropped connectivity can delay order taking and credit-card processing, two issues that tend to irk customers.

“I don’t know if the iPad specifically is the solution, but I do think the device opens the door for all different types of tablets that might better integrate into the restaurant setting,” ChompStack’s Wei says. “Even if the iPad won’t be used, others will.”

Marketing & Promotions, Ordering, Story, 4food, Jason's Deli, Moe's Southwest Grill, Schlotzsky's