Tired of waiting at your favourite restaurant? It could soon be a thing of the past, as table management apps and online reservation systems crop up

Hope, more than appetite, makes us stop at the popular place for dinner on a Saturday. The waiting room is packed and your wait-time is half-an-hour, with luck. You join the patrons on the footpath hungrily looking at each other. Tethered to a 100-ft range, you wonder if the supervisor got your information right — a six-seater table. Will she remember the name when a table opens up? If she does, will she please not stick her neck out and yell, “Manish, party of six!”

Only she doesn’t have to: there is a tech app to help her. Quite a few, in fact, as we discovered. Restaurants opened their door to digital technology several years ago to minimise customer frustration. Saravana Bhavan was one of the first to mail your order to the kitchen from the table on a hand-held. “It shows up on a screen in the kitchen,” the head-waiter told me. In some restaurants, this device is on the table — you punch your preference on the keyed-in menu. Sure, it won’t answer our ‘what would you suggest?’ or offer a better alternative, but hey, if you ordered a dry-fruit rava dosa, that is exactly what you’ll get!

Digital menu

Now restaurants are adding a new app to their digital menu to manage waiting. Umami, a trendy burger joint that opened last year in San Francisco quickly found out that the paper-and-pencil method of wait-listing wasn’t for them. On some days, waiting time stretched to an hour and customers did what a lot of us would — they left. Hostesses found themselves chasing down customers once the table was ready.

Umami went for NoshList, a wait-list application made by Firespotter Labs. The free app downloaded on iPhone / iPad helps restaurant staff manage seating by adding or removing parties on the list. It’s simple: with Noshlist you enter a customer’s name, phone number and party size. When the table is ready, you press a button to send an automatic text or a recorded call to the customer’s phone. NoshList calculates average wait time by party-size and tracks in real-time how long each party has been waiting.

You can see its advantages. I would certainly trust an app that works on a neutral calculation than a harassed supervisor. I know I will be seated at the appointed hour. As Firespotter Labs said, it is not intrusive. Since the call will appear on the mobile and I don’t have to be within earshot, I could spend waiting time shopping in the arcade nearby, or running errands. And immediately after we placed the order, we started talking about the app. Tables are turned more efficiently, we said. We had a hostess walking around with a sleek iPad, giving the place a touch of “now”. Good for business image.

NoshList’s free wait-list app is already in about 1,500 restaurants. Noshlist’s website says it can track guest loyalty (date, party size, wait time), diner demographics on different days (when do you have more children, more women?), multi-device sync (minimise the time tables are empty, steady ticket-flow to the kitchen, reduce ticket times). You also get weekly e-mail summaries of restaurant performance in table management. There’s also live webview and analytics for customers (away from the restaurant? Login to the NoshList webview from any web-accessible device to see your live wait-list or view your restaurants analytics such as average wait-time and total diners seated).

Noshlist is not alone. There are others — TimeView, Tableista, TurnStar, Table’s Ready, BuzzTable, Diner Connection — with similar products and services to digitise and streamline every portion of the dining experience. NoWait was one of the first when it landed in early 2010. The app (which, despite its name, does not promise customers will have no wait) is in restaurants all over the U.S.

Of course, there is the obvious glitch. Will you part with your mobile number unhesitatingly? At least one service used customers’ mobile phone numbers to text them promotions and trade ads. Noshlist promises that it doesn’t use customer information for purposes other than the wait-list. But developers need cash: and there’s money in collecting data and selling it back to restaurants. NoshList has launched a pay-for-it service, which, among other things, allows restaurants to get information about their guests.

But put it all together. Apps for table management. Online reservation systems (check OpenTable). iPads and apps replacing cash registers and ordering systems. Maybe we are heading for a digital restaurant transformation.

WHAT’S APP!

NoshList

TimeView

Tableista

TurnStar

Table’s Ready

BuzzTable

Diner Connection

NoWait