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Abby Dillman, 3, occupies herself with the Ziosk device while eating lunch with her parents, Chris and Becky Dillman, of Mount Airy, Sunday at Chili's in Eldersburg.
Abby Dillman, 3, occupies herself with the Ziosk device while eating lunch with her parents, Chris and Becky Dillman, of Mount Airy, Sunday at Chili's in Eldersburg. (DYLAN SLAGLE/STAFF PHOTO)

ELDERSBURG After lunch at the Chili's restaurant in Eldersburg Sunday, Kim Polischeck got ready to pay the bill. Rather than wait for her server to run the credit card, however, she simply grabbed the Ziosk tablet on the table and swiped the card herself. Sometimes, it's more convenient to use the Ziosk, the Eldersburg resident said as she helped her children get ready to leave.

"There are times when you just have to go," Polischeck said. "Still, I like the human part of [the restaurant experience]."

Polischeck isn't the only one who likes both the convenience of a new technology and the human touch of a restaurant server, as evidenced by an informal canvass Sunday of the Chili's in Eldersburg.

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Chili's began rolling out the devices at the chain's restaurants in January and, by the year's midpoint, all Chili's restaurants across the country had the tablets. Employees were generally receptive to the idea, said Ashley Johnson, public relations manager at Brinker International, which owns Chili's.

"Ziosk has been embraced as a tool to help our servers create an even better dining experience," Johnson wrote in an email. "It is like having an extra pair of hands at the table."

With the Ziosk tablets, guests can order drinks from the bar, appetizers and desserts, call for the server to visit the table, and pay the bill. They can also use the device for non-dining entertainment, such as video games and reading the news. On average, Johnson said, 80 percent of guests at a Ziosk-enabled establishment use the devices and more than 70 percent pay via the tablet.

"Anything we can do to make our guests feel special and appreciated is an advantage," Johnson wrote. "Ziosk tabletop devices allows guests to set the pace of their experience."

The device has been designed for convenience and simplicity that will ideally improve the experience of customers and supplement the skills of the staff, she said.

Reactions from customers in Eldersburg were mixed on Sunday, however.

Lauren Rodriguez, of Eldersburg, said she'd prefer the device not be on the table.

"It's just another distraction from why you're here," Rodriguez said. "The waiter is enough for me."

Her friend, Matt Hawes, said he would probably use the payment system, but not much else.

Chris Dillman, of Mount Airy, said the device provides a number of conveniences, including video games to keep his 3-year-old daughter, Abby, occupied until their meals are delivered. Users can play unlimited video games for 99 cents. It doesn't take the place of a server though, he said.

His wife, Becky, said she uses the device because it has an allergy menu which lists which foods contain specific allergens.

Several other patrons agreed with Chris Dillman, and said the devices are a great way to entertain children. Unfortunately, the device's entertainment functions are realistically only usable by one person at a time, said Aaron Shelton, of Eldersburg.

Eldersburg residents' Kyle and Giuliana Eggleton said they prefer a combination of both server interaction and Ziosk conveniences.

"Getting the check quickly is the most important thing," Giuliana Eggleton said. "You don't want customers to wait."

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Another guest, Greg Kovolenko, Sr., said he never pays any attention to the device.

"I haven't used it and probably never will," the New Windsor resident said. "I'm an old guy."

Johnson said the Ziosk is a stand-alone device so it doesn't intrude on those who wish to deal solely with a server.

"For those who aren't into technology, they can simply turn the Ziosk around and experience Chili's unplugged," she said.

Chili's is not the first or only restaurant in Carroll County to utilize such devices. Two years ago, Applebee's began testing the devices in stores throughout the country, said Kevin Mortesen, vice president of communications at Applebee's.

"We wanted to test the functionality of the equipment and make sure the employees were comfortable with the tool," Mortesen said.

Applebee's chose to go with E la Carte Presto tablets, a rival vendor to Ziosk. Initially, offering the devices was designed to provide just the pay-at-the-table feature, but the service has grown to be much more than that, Mortensen said. Now, they provide guests with a range of conveniences.

So far, 35 percent of Applebee's restaurants have devices in place, including the location in Westminster; however, when the devices were installed, an error occurred which has temporarily prevented guests from using the devices to pay their checks, Mortensen said.

As with all new technologies, the tablets at Applebee's in Westminster had glitches and kinks. When they are fixed, Mortensen said, the devices will give guests a more efficient and entertaining dining experience.

He also said the company will not have an accurate estimate of the tablets' capabilities from employees and customers until further along in the rollout process.

It seems that at Chili's at least, the device has started to grow on one person.

"I typically only use [the Ziosk] to pay the bill," Shelton said. "Maybe though I could see myself using this more; I could go either way."

Reach staff writer Wiley Hayes at 410-857-3315 or wiley.hayes@carrollcountytimes.com.

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