Outback founder goes all in on iPads

Outback founder goes all in on iPads

Chris Sullivan is making big bets on tablet technology at his fledgling Mediterranean chain, Carmel Café, and with its companion software venture, MenuPad.

A number of restaurants around the country have installed iPad or similar tablet technologies on a one-off basis to serve as high-tech menus, wine lists, payment devices and more. But the four-unit “Mod Med” chain Carmel Café & Wine Bar has built its entire service strategy around these high tech-devices. No wonder. Carmel’s partners are also key backers of the tech firm that supplies the app they’re using.  

And these are no ordinary backers. One partner in Carmel Cafe & Wine Bar is Chris Sullivan, co-founder of Outback Steakhouse and long-time chairman, c.e.o. and president of OSI Restaurant Partners. Another is Terry Ryan, who formerly headed the Oceanaire Seafood chain. He’s partner and president of Carmel Café. Both men do double-duty as key figures in MenuPad, an Australian provider of tablet-based integrated menu solutions they hope to establish in the U.S.

Sullivan and Ryan say that MenuPad has enabled Carmel Café to expedite table turns at lunch, trim front-of-the-house labor costs and give customers a memorable experience. That experience includes the customer’s ability to access the Internet via their iPads once the ordering function has been completed. Dining room ambience receives a much-welcomed boost, because the restaurant doesn’t need TVs.

“Our guests are fascinated with this iPad technology,” Ryan says. ‘It helps them to not only select what they want to enjoy but empowers them to completely customize their dining experience. They are able to order exactly what they want the way they want it.” Not every customer wants to use the tablet devices, so the restaurant keeps hard-copy menus available for those who want a more traditional experience.

Other benefits promised are operational. The app is touted as helping to streamline server, kitchen and restaurant workloads. The general pitch is that even while customers are being given an enhanced dining experience, overall operating costs go down.

Sullivan and Ryan say that “since implementing MenuPad, Carmel Café and Wine Bar has seen a 20 percent increase and reduced operating costs by $8,000 in a single year. The total positive financial impact: $45,000.”

Given their track record in the restaurant industry, Sullivan and Ryan’s MenuPad venture has a shot.  And Tampa-based Carmel Café gives them a dandy lab to demonstrate & Wine Bar describes itself this way: it serves “signature Mod Med cuisine inspired by the flavors and cultural influences of Mediterranean countries like Italy, Spain, France, Greece and Morocco. Its MenuPad makes it easy for guests to select food, wines and serving sizes as well as to calculate the total cost of their meal plus tip.”  

If you’re thinking iPads alone produce restaurant success, be aware that the well-run Carmel Café would appear to be an up-and-coming chain whether it offered iPads or not. Their MenuPad app venture looks like a winner, too, but be sure to look at all the available options in this fast-growing category before you make the leap.