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Manners mavens usually frown upon the use of cellphones at the dinner table. Yet, there might be good reason to stay connected during a meal out. Digital devices are becoming an important part of the dining experience. Restaurant owners in Columbia are embracing new technology to increase customer satisfaction and sales.

“Emerging technology is changing how consumers dine out,” says restaurant consultant Fred Clemmons. “It affects how people choose a restaurant to patronize. It plays into making reservations, ordering, paying the bill and sharing the experience with others.”

Clemmons is the owner and managing partner at Missouri Restaurant Solutions in Columbia. His company provides hardware, software, security cameras and integrated solutions for the local food service industry.

Several Columbia restaurants are using programs and devices to update their service. Bleu Restaurant & Wine Bar, 44 Stone Public House, Room 38, and the Wine Cellar & Bistro all use a reservation system called Open Table. The mobile app and website make it convenient for customers to book tables in real time based on the date, time and number of people in their party. Pickleman’s uses an application called Thanx to offer rewards such as discounted or free sandwiches to loyal customers. Shakespeare’s Pizza recently added an online ordering system for pickup and delivery.

“All of the new trends are about giving the customer the best and fastest experience possible,” says Clemmons.

Cloud-based point of sale (POS) platforms such as Square and ShopKeep are growing in popularity. With these systems, restaurants can use tablets and smartphones to take payments, create custom menus, send digital receipts and manage orders. The Roof, 11Eleven, and Campus Bar & Grill are some of the places that use these methods. Leigh Lockhart, owner of Main Squeeze Natural Foods Café, set up the ShopKeep iPad POS in her restaurant in spring 2013. She also uses several mobile apps for day-to-day tasks. They allow her to build a customer database, organize employee schedules while on the go, and provide detailed ingredient information to diners.

“The new technology has improved my business in so many ways,” Lockhart says. “These tools help to solve problems. They make everything work so much better. Our customers like the simplicity. Only a small percentage of them are flummoxed by the technology.”

Lockhart plans to incorporate more technology as time goes on. For example, she can set up her current system to allow customers to make mobile payments without cards or cash. She’s also interested in preorder apps that give customers a pickup time for their food and let them pay before arriving. Although she is excited about all the possibilities, Lockhart says she is careful about how much technology she uses.

“I like the authenticity of human interaction,” she says. “As you get more into the technology, you can start to lose the intimate feel of a small, independent business. We are trying to find the right balance.”

Diane Benedetti, owner of Chez Trappeur Wine Bar & Bistro in Arrow Rock, also has concerns about going overboard with technology. Her establishment uses an iPad POS designed for restaurants. She says that both employees and management have found success with using the platform behind the scenes. It has increased efficiency and accuracy with accounting, inventory and communication with the kitchen and bar staff. But Benedetti decided not to use a feature of the program that lets servers take tableside orders and send them to the chef electronically using an iPad.

“We have chosen to make the dining experience more personal and less high-tech,” Benedetti says. “We don’t want the customer to feel that there is a rush to get their order back to the kitchen.”

Clemmons expects new technology to continue to expand in Columbia’s eateries.

“The technology seems to advance every six months or so,” he says. “The demand for the new gadgets has increased tremendously in the past few years. It will continue to change both the customer experience and the restaurant industry’s ability to increase traffic and revenue.”

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