NEW YORK -- When I arrived at Laguardia Airport for my flight back to Orlando Tuesday, I headed right to the gate in Terminal D instead of taking refuge in Delta’s Sky Club. It turned out to be a lucky choice.
I wasn’t really heading to the gate but rather to one of the newly remodeled food and beverage outlets in the terminal, Bar Brace. Not sure why it’s called that. Maybe to “brace” yourself for the flight? Or maybe it’s pronounced “bra-chay” for its menu of Italian panini? But it wasn’t the name that attracted me. To be honest, I didn’t even know it had a name until I was back in Orlando. What caught my attention was its proximity to the gate -- it’s right out there floating in the center of the gate area instead of tucked away behind a storefront on the way to baggage claim -- and that every seat at the bar had its own iPad for guests to use. In fact, using the iPad was the only way for a guest to order.
We’ve talked before about the attempts to integrate tablet technology into the conventional dining experience, most recently in my review of Carmel Cafe. Until now, all the attempts I’ve seen have been more faddish than functional. Putting the menu on the tablet so that guests can see pictures as well as descriptions of the dishes, and perhaps get cross-referenced recommendations of food and wine pairings. The most commonly incorporated practical use is as a means to accept credit cards using Square or one of the other payment options that have come online recently.
But Bar Brace puts the food and beverage menus on the iPads and the guests order the food by placing the items in a shopping cart (a virtual one, because a real shopping cart would just be messy).
Then, once the order is complete, the guests click the check-out option. The total amount of their purchase is displayed along with the option to add a gratuity based on percentage or a separate amount.
Here is the part that surprised me most, other than the fact that the ordering process so far had gone smoothly: payment can be made only via credit card; cash is not accepted. And instead of a little white square that plugs into the iPad itself, each station has a swipe device more like the kind you’d see at a gas station pump built into the counter (the swipe device, not a gas pump).
Now lest you think this is entirely an impersonal experience -- a latter day Horn & Hardart Automat, if you will -- I found it to be quite the opposite thanks to the young man who was one of a few staffers behind the counter. He helped me and other guests navigate the newfangled devices and even offered tastes of the wines I was interested in ordering. He also delivered the food. And he did so with an earnest eagerness that would have been refreshing back home in Orlando. It was all the more impressive from a New York standpoint. I learned later that his name is Dylan, so kudos to him.
The iPads are not just at the bar counter. They're at all the other restaurants, too. And thanks to a recent renovation the whole terminal is lousy with them, available for anyone to use. (This is being rolled out throughout the New York airport system.) And, I’m told, even if you’re sitting away from one of the restaurants and bars you can still have food delivered to you.
By the way, the iPads are for more than just ordering. You can enter your flight number and it will keep you updated on its status. It has games to play and of course offers access to the Internet -- for a fee. That’s where the Orlando International Airport still shines, with free Internet for all. I could have had free wi-fi in the Sky Club, too, and I wouldn’t have had to pay for a couple of glasses of wine there, either.
But you’ll recall I said something about being lucky.
Because Bar Brace is so close to the departure gates, passengers can hear announcements from the gate agents. While I was sipping a glass of wine, I heard my name called to come to the desk. When I got there, the Delta employee said that I was being upgraded to first class as a thank you for being a frequent flyer with the airline. I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have happened if I had been in the Sky Club. And I wouldn’t have heard my name if I had been seated in one of the other bars or restaurants.