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There are 8,000 iPad kiosks to choose from at George Bush Intercontinental Airport terminals, B, C, and E.
There are 8,000 iPad kiosks to choose from at George Bush Intercontinental Airport terminals, B, C, and E.
Photo by Kate McLean

The iPad Restaurant System at IAH United Terminals Doesn't Mean You Don't Tip

Restaurant service a la iPad, introduced to George Bush Intercontinental Airport in 2016 by OTG management, eliminates one part of the telephone game by taking the ordering and payment out of the hands of the server. This dining model operates faster, which in the business of travel, is never a bad thing. Members of the waitstaff, while still interacting with guests, have the responsibility of running the food and of course, dealing with iPad malfunctions, mis-orders, and overall confusion if there is any.

Partnering with United, this style of service is available in B, C, and E terminals. Local Houston chefs including Chris Shepherd and Monica Pope have helped brighten the palates of airport diners, which is OTG’s —stands for ‘on the go’— underlying goal, “So unique and fresh, you’ll forget you’re in the airport.”

Creating recipes for IAH restaurants to be operated by OTG management is appealing to chefs for a number of reasons. Pope says, “It was a lot of money upfront and not that many work hours—I can write menus quickly, and it didn’t affect my brand or principles at all.” Pope was paid $2,500 a recipe for about 30-35 recipes to outfit the menu of Olio, a panini bar featuring locally inspired sandwiches and salads located in terminal C-North.

Shepherd, James Beard Award winner and chef/owner of Underbelly Hospitality, who also wrote recipes and helped train kitchen staff at Ember, says “The opportunity to consult on a menu was a great learning experience, and it was fun to contribute to the improvements in the airport. I’d do it again if they asked me!” His contract was year-long and though he is no longer involved, Ember, also located in terminal C-North, still uses all the recipes he introduced.

While the duties of waiters have been decreased in this ordering system, they are still only making $2.13 an hour, the Texas minimum wage for tipped employees. OTG waiters like Luis Mongarro say that because of the iPad service model, they will receive a few no-tips from customers every shift. “Everybody thinks we get paid a higher hourly wage.”

But despite this, Mongarro, 22, who has been serving for four years, said that out of all the places he’s worked, this has been the most successful. “I feel like this is the future of serving, a lot of people don’t like it because there isn’t the 'personal interaction,' but we do go up to people and ask if they are familiar with the style—and if they aren’t, we show them.”

Bartender Bre Harris feels successful too though she says she wouldn’t recommend the model outside of the airport. “You are able to have less staff due to the way everything operates, I like it because there is more money that we are able to make, and it takes the stress away from the guests and servers—it takes that step out.” A representative for OTG Management disagrees, saying that this model doesn’t require less staff, that in fact, it requires more. But Harris also says some people don't tip. “I don’t focus on it too much, it’s not a lot, but maybe 2-3 people a day tip $0.”

Whether it’s public confusion on how these servers are compensated, since their duties have shifted to one of less personal interaction, or whether it’s guests that straight up just don’t tip, it’s unclear why some customers don't consider tipping the people bringing them their food.

Eric Brinker, spokesman for OTG Management, says “We have seen no trends when it comes to customers refusing to leave a tip. Our crew members are the best of the best so we always encourage passengers to leave a tip that is commensurate to the service.” OTG makes sure its employees are paid minimum wage, which works out better in states like New York with its $15 an hour minimum.

While the technology of iPad order-taking and entertainment—you can play finger skating while you wait for a Bloody Mary— does decrease ticket times, it’s also saddled with frustration for both staff and guests when credit cards won’t swipe, or a modification is desired, or it’s all just a bit too confusing. Touch screens take guests from menu options to ordering to payment all by themselves and when it comes to the tip, 15, 18 and 20 percent options are generated making the choice to leave nothing at all a conscious one.

“We do get a lot of guests who are frustrated with the system, because change is not always easy, but this model works at the airport—it’s faster,” says Harris. Mongarro added, “And then whenever people are frustrated doing it, it doesn’t make my job any easier, a lot of people complain, there are definitely glitches—it’s technology, give it five years.”

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