It's no secret that dining out has been hurt by the recession.

Now some restaurants are trying to turn things around by using Apple's iPad tablet computers to provide a digital dining experience.

Buffalo Wild Wings, based in Golden Valley, and a few other restaurants around the country are experimenting with having customers order or pay using an iPad at their table. The hope, of course, is that the device will boost food and drink sales.

"Restaurant sales have decreased since the beginning of the recession," said Aaron Allen, a restaurant consultant in Orlando, Fla. "Part of the iPad's benefit to restaurants is the novelty of it. But there haven't been any studies yet of whether using iPads helps improve sales."

In a 60-day test that began Feb. 29 at Buffalo Wild Wings' Oakdale restaurant, customers are offered the option of having an iPad at their table. They can use it to browse the menu, order food and drinks and pay for the meal (via a card-swiping device attached to the iPad.) Customers can also play games or browse websites.

The iPad isn't meant to replace employees, who will still be available to answer customer questions and to bring food to the table. And it won't be forced on customers; the Oakdale location has 25 iPads, costing about $500 each, for about 60 tables.

Buffalo Wild Wings hopes the iPad will boost sales by giving customers more control over when they order food or a second round of drinks, and that it will please parents by helping entertain children.

One Buffalo Wild Wings customer, Sheng Hang of St. Paul, liked using the iPad to pay the bill instead of waiting for the server.

"I think the iPad would be great for the busy hours of any restaurant," she said. "I would order and check out when I'm ready."

And, because the iPad takes over the ordering process, servers will have more time to chat with guests and encourage them to play other restaurant-wide games, such a trivia contest, that are believed to encourage return visits.

"If this goes well, we'll ultimately roll it out everywhere over the course of a year or two," said Ben Nelsen, vice president of guest experience and innovation at Buffalo Wild Wings, which has 325 company-owned restaurants and 500 franchises. "Right now we've got to make sure this works for us financially."

During an earlier test in Canada, the iPad made customers more aware that Buffalo Wild Wings offers more than just wings, which tends to help sales, Nelsen said.

In Oakdale, the financial goal is to increase sales per customer and to generate more return visits. Early expectations are that 20 percent of guests may spend $1 to $2 more per visit because the iPad gives them more control over when they order appetizers or desserts, he said.

The device should also streamline restaurant operations. Because guests can place an order via the iPad instead of having a waiter write it down, it's expected that fewer ordering mistakes will be made, saving money, Nelsen said.

Buffalo Wild Wings also is considering selling product placement advertising.

"When a customer types in draft beer, he or she can see pictures of the first four items," Nelsen said. "We might sell advertising to those vendors and distributors who want their products to show up first on the menu. But we haven't gone down that road yet."

Several smaller restaurants across the country also are using iPads as a way to present more detail about wine choices or to offer more pictures of food, said Jack Serfass, CEO of Uptown Network, a Naples, Fla., software firm that programs iPads for restaurants.

"Electronic menus have compelling benefits, such as giving guests more information so they have confidence in what they're ordering," Serfass said. "I believe paper menus will completely go away over time."

Nine Chili's restaurants in the Twin Cities offer customers a tablet computer (not an iPad) on which they can browse the menu, buy movie tickets, play games or pay electronically.

"The main goal was to provide an experience that not everybody else offers, including convenience and a greater amount of information," said Phil Wenckus, Wisconsin-based director of operations for ERJ Dining of Louisville, Ky., Chili's largest franchisee.

What sets Buffalo Wild Wings apart is the extent to which the iPad fits into its regular restaurant operations. The Oakdale restaurant was chosen for the test because it was already installing a new electronic cash register system that was more iPad-compatible, Nelsen said. In addition, the test was delayed several months so the iPad provider, Idaho-based HubWorks Interactive, could ensure that the card-swiping devices complied with security standards.

"Restaurants are in the early adopter phase of guest computers," Allen said. "And Buffalo Wild Wings knows there's an opportunity in being early."

Steve Alexander • 612-673-4553