About a year ago, a change started taking place at Newark Airport's Terminal C: iPads. Lots and lots and lots of iPads. Mounted on the tables at soon-to-open restaurants and lined up on the tops of soon-to-open bars.
Bars and barstools were inserted right down the center of the concourse where moving walkways used to be, and beer bottles from microbreweries were part of the decor. The new restaurants were not your usual fast-food airport brands; these offered a sophisticated look (Parisian brasserie, sushi bar) with menus from A-list chefs to match.
This is the work of concessionaire OTG, which has ditched the old, tired airport restaurant in favor of this sleek model. The Newark project is OTG's biggest yet at $120 million, and more than 5,500 iPads are being deployed to enable fliers to order drink and food from chefs like Alain Ducasse, Dale Talde, Mario Carbone, Jose Garces and Alex Guarnaschelli.
"Farm to terminal," OTG's website proclaims, surely one of the few times those two locations have been linked in one phrase (especially where Newark is concerned).
I prefer to fly from Newark as early in the day as possible, and the strategy means I usually have enough time to grab a Starbucks but not savor the experience of a sit-down restaurant. But on a redeye to London last week I had just enough time -- about 30 minutes, thanks to a rebooking -- to give the iPads a whirl.
The configuration of the bars in the center of the concourse meant I could grab a seat close to my gate, so I pulled up to a counter at Caps Beer Garden within a few feet of Gate 121 (on principle I couldn't eat at CBGB's, named after the famous New York City club). I didn't have to be within eyesight of a departure board: the tablet offered to take a shot of my boarding pass and alert me when it was time to board.
The iPad home screen offered 20 options, including shopping in the terminal, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and games. A "How may we help you?" menu at the bottom of the device takes you to food and drink.
The Caps menu includes a lineup of sushi, pasta and sandwiches (although OTG is coy about which chef works on which restaurant, I read later that one of my favorites, Dale Talde, is behind this particular menu). The drinks menu offered water, soda, cocktails, wine by the glass or bottle, and a surprisingly lengthy list of beer.
Patrons pay with a card or with miles. I did a quick swipe of my credit card through a card reader adjacent to the tablet, and the iPad asked me to enter my email address in order to receive a receipt. No need to flag down a waiter to bring a check when you realize your flight has been called.
"Meal is being delivered," the iPad screen told me.
Less than five minutes later, servers came by with the drink and my dinner. I had surprisingly few qualms about ordering raw fish at an airport concessionaire, and my spicy tuna roll was fresh and tasty.
I thought I would have mixed feelings about ordering from a faceless computer, but it was fine (perhaps the downside being that I couldn't see the entire menu at once; each section is segregated into its own sub-menu, albeit with description and attractive photos).
I reckoned that if I wanted conversation I could easily strike up a chat with neighbors across the counter from me, and I had my smartphone, Kindle, computer and the airport iPad for diversion. The counter stool was relatively comfortable, and If I planned to settle in for a while I would have made use of the ultra-convenient power outlets placed at regular intervals along the counter.
On the other hand, the couple across the counter from me were puzzled when a drink didn't show up, and another person also forgot to tap one button to complete her order. But the servers were friendly and nobody seemed too fussed about the mistakes.
And with OTG making inroads into Minneapolis, New York LaGuardia, Philadelphia and Houston, I predict travelers will get used to placing their food order on a tablet.