Table for Two and a Tablet, Please

E la Carte

E la CarteWhen E la Carte founder Rajat Suri dropped out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2009 and began waiting tables at a chain restaurant adjacent to campus, the seemingly-bizarre life transition proved excellent gossip fodder for his former engineering classmates.

Many assumed the Toronto native had cracked under the pressure of a rigorous Ph.D. program and was now experiencing a complete mental breakdown. They weren’t buying the ex-computer hacker’s improbable explanation — he’d dropped out the world’s most famous technical university because he was bored. As for the new waiter gig? It was “research” for a new startup that would revolutionize the restaurant industry. Suuure.

Fast forward two years and Suri’s classmates have little choice but to buy his story. Celebrating its official launch today — E la Carte (a graduate of the Y Combinator summer 2010 program) is supplying partner restaurants with handheld, touchscreen tablets that let customers view pictures and read descriptions of food, order meals and pay at their tables without having to wait for the human waiter.

The product operates on the premise that restaurants are “chaotic environments” that haven’t been improved upon much since the first tavern opened in the middle ages.  Orders are constantly mixed up, cooks can’t decipher custom orders written on greasy order slips, waiters spend too much time chasing lost orders — and heaven forbid a party of seven wants to split their bill at the end of a meal. Forget about it.

In fact, Suri says he came up with the E la Carte concept after dining out with a big group of MIT engineering buddies. The check came. Some people wanted to pay with credit card, some people with cash. Everyone wanted to pay for their meal alone. No one could figure out how to split the check.

“This felt like it went on for hours,” Suri says. “I thought if a bunch of MIT engineers were having this much trouble, others must be having the same problems.” (Cue smug wisecrack from the boys at Cal Tech in five, four, three..)

As a result, the E la Carte software comes with an especially nifty feature that allows friends to easily split the bill — either evenly or by menu item — and pay with a combination of cash and credit card.

It has other useful bells and whistles as well, including a timer feature that counts down until an item’s estimated time of delivery (which can be customized to account for restaurant conditions). And to fill those painfully agonizing minutes between ordering spinach artichoke dip appetizer and waiting for it to arrive, the tablet includes entertainment and social media features. Customers can play an array of solo and team games, partake in a little trivia, doodle in a paint brush application and upload the artistic masterpieces — along with their menu choices — to Facebook.

While the Presto tablet uses touch screen technology, it doesn’t exactly look like a sleek iPad, which would likely be broken in five minutes in a family-friendly restaurant environment. Instead E la Carte is supplying restaurants with heavier, more durable hardware that happens to be coated in rubber. Much of the product’s heft is devoted to a heavy-duty battery that can last a day without a charge, as well as a credit card reader so customers can pay at their tables.

E la Carte has 15 employees (14 are engineers and most are from MIT) and Suri requires those without restaurant experience to apprentice in the service industry before signing on to the project. He believes this strategy gives his tech-heavy crew insight into the trenches.

The team is definitely taking a risk. Hardware-driven startups have had a shaky history of finding success in Silicon Valley. For a grim reminder, look no further than the recent news that e-learning startup Kno scrapped plans for its much hyped tablet and will focus exclusively on software serves as a grim reminder.

But prominent members of the tech world appear to be banking on its success. So far, E la Carte says it has secured more than $1 million in funding from Y Combinator, SV Angel, and prominent tech investors that include founders of Reddit, Gmail and Dropbox, along with restaurant executives from Applebee’s and other major national chains.

After beta testing in Boston, the service is launching in about 20 locations in the Bay Area and beyond. The company has also made a deal with a major American restaurant chain, which it plans to announce later. (A hint might be in the press kit, which lists Applebee’s executives among the initial founders).

Suri says he has received calls from about 100 restaurants that want to get the tablets on their tables. And it’s not difficult to see why some restaurateurs would be interested.  According to company figures based on six months of data from pilot roll-outs in a half dozen locations, restaurants using the system are seeing an increase of 10-12 percent higher sales through “impulse” orders, and 84 percent of guests are making more regular visits.

There are other promising applications for restaurants in data collection. The machines save consumer information and the E La Carte team gets detailed reports on what food customers are ordering, and what menu items they think about ordering based on the amount of time spent lingering over it. As for how customers will feel about their dining preferences being stored for posterity and mined for every nugget, that’s another story.

Suri pitches the tablet by saying it clearly makes a waiter’s job much easier, freeing him or her up to take care of customer-service tasks like quick refills and interacting with guests. And with higher total bills and an automated feature that allows the customer to choose a tip between 15 and 25 percent (or write in a custom amount), he says he isn’t worried about waitstaff getting stiffed on tips.

But with technology that allows customers to realize they can order their Quesada explosion salad with substitutions before a waiter even says, “How are we doing today,” how long is it before customers start to ask whether they even need a waiter at all?

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