DALLAS - Huddled around three laptops in a small Dallas restaurant, a handful of Spanish-speaking employees toyed with an online program that teaches English.
"I want to grow in the business," said Rodolfo Padilla, a 25-year-old native of Mexico who works for the owner of the cheese-steak restaurant.
He and other U.S. restaurant workers are potential beneficiaries of a new restaurant industry approach to teaching English - one more focused on technology, from online programs to toy-inspired touchpads.
"Technology provides a key element of flexibility," said Tom Landis, who owns seven local franchised restaurants including Texadelphia, where the classes are held. "It's just cool."
The new tech-focused attempt is designed to deal with a major challenge for the $440 billion industry: too many workers who speak too little English, and have too few effective options to learn it.
During the past six years, Padilla has progressed from busboy at one restaurant to manager of Landis' Pizza Patron restaurant in Plano, Texas. His rise was facilitated by studying English.
Landis will help Padilla and others continue that quest via the Internet using a program called the Rosetta Stone, which teaches basic vocabulary and restaurant-specific concepts.
Meanwhile, Dallas-based Brinker International Inc. is launching one of the largest initiatives combining technology and English lessons.
In February, the nation's second-largest casual-dining company plans to launch an at-home program called Sed de Saber ("thirst for knowledge" in Spanish). Workers will use interactive touchpads, similar to the popular LeapFrog toy, and study a Mexican novella to learn restaurant terms and concepts in English, said Jose Gomez, director of diversity for Brinker. More than a third of Brinker's roughly 95,000 restaurant employees are Hispanic.
Until recently, most businesses have focused on traditional methods for teaching English, including grammar-heavy classroom instruction, often taught at community colleges or offered through them.
But for many low-income immigrants, some working two or three jobs, classroom instruction has not been effective. Shyness, scheduling and transportation often are roadblocks.
"Depending on the individual, technology may be the way to go," said Wendi Safstrom, vice president of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. "It's become such a challenge in the industry."
Without a solution, the industry will have a hard time finding its next generation of leaders, said Gerald A. Fernandez, president of the MultiCultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance, a think tank in Providence, R.I., that promotes diversity.
"They can become our future entrepreneurs, our future franchisees," he said. "But that doesn't happen unless you acquire English."
About 20 percent of the restaurant industry's work force is Hispanic, according to 2003 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The restaurant association, the industry's largest trade group, did not have figures on the percentage of workers who do not speak English. But insiders said it is easy to find restaurant back-shops around the country where most conversations are in Spanish.
That has turned some restaurants into virtual Towers of Babel, where front-line managers are unable to effectively communicate with their immigrant staffers, and workers are unable to advance.
Brinker is putting its money into the LeapPad-based system, which it tested for several weeks in July with 15 workers in California, Texas and Florida.
Based on the test results, Brinker has purchased 300 touchpads ($225 each) and might buy more next year.
Funded in part by the Coca-Cola Co., Sed de Saber was developed by Retention Education LLC, a work force development company based in Newport Beach, Calif.
Founder Bill Groux said he has more than 25 customers, including Compass Group, a food-service company in Charlotte, N.C., and Outback Steakhouse Inc. of Tampa, Fla.