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Waiters vs. the iPad: Who wins?

Customers of a restaurant chain opening in California will order their food using a computer at their table. How will that work out?

By doubleace Feb 17, 2011 12:41PM
This post comes from Lynn Mucken of MSN Money

It's been a bad week for humans. First, IBM's Watson computer took on the two smartest "Jeopardy" players in history and made them look a bit dim. Now, iPads are taking jobs away from waiters.

 

The co-founders of BJ's Restaurants have announced that iPads will sit atop each of the tables in their three soon-to-open Stacked: Food Well Built fast-casual eateries in California.

 

Customers will use the iPads to choose from a standard menu or to build their own meal from dozens of options to customize hamburgers, sandwiches, pizza, salads and milkshakes. Once the order is placed, a server delivers the food to tables and tends to guests. At the end of the meal, guests can pay by using a card-swipe system. Post continues after video.

Owners Paul Motenko and Jerry Hennessy say it is a concept whose time has come. And they may be right. In a recent survey, two-thirds of 18- to 34-year-olds said they'd favor restaurants with high-tech gear, Hudson Riehle, research chief at the National Restaurant Association, told the Nation's Restaurant News.

Like all great ideas, of course, the devil is in the details. Some possible pluses and minuses (only you know which side of the list they fall on for you):

  • Sharing a menu. Tell the truth: One of the most irritating parts of dining out is the friend who can't make up his or her mind. Everyone else, primed by the sweet scents wafting out of the kitchen, is ready to eat, but one person is always high-centered on the choice between Swiss or cheddar. Now multiply this delay by the fact the iPad has to be passed around.
  • What about the kids? Children love gadgets. Attempts to pry an iPod out of their hands will create some ugly scenes. And will they be able to color on the screen?
  • Those choices. No matter how few or many menu options there are, diners have questions or requests: "Does this contain peanuts?" or "Please don't butter that bun." Assuming this business model includes fewer staff, it might take hours to place an order.
  • Those choices No. 2. Maybe we don't want unlimited choices. One of the most popular fast-food places in my old hometown, Seattle, is Dick's, a small burger chain that gives you three choices of burgers and only one fries size -- everything made their way, not your way. People stand outside in 40-degree rain to order the stuff.
  • The tip. Ah, that great American tradition/rip-off/reward. This sounds like a glorified fast-food outlet, but without the lines. We don't tip there; will we be expected to tip here?  And how much: 5%? Surely, not 15%.
  • The tip No. 2. If you're paying on the iPad, you never have to look the human help in the eye when you stiff them.
  • No waiters. I'll be honest: A pretty, personable waitress brightens my dining experience. And it's not just a male thing. I recently went out to dinner with two women in their 70s. Every time our waiter, a very handsome and very young man, wandered by, they giggled about "how cute" he was. We'll miss that.
  • No waiters No. 2. If there's no big tip in it for them, will the servers be as attentive? Will the water glass get refilled regularly, or will we have to order it up on the iPad?
  • No waiters No. 3: Little is more irritating than a waitperson who rushes over and asks if everything is "OK" just one bite into your dinner, then comes back every five minutes to ask again, always arriving when your mouth is full or when the conversation has reached critical mass. Hope the iPad won't suddenly start talking to us.

The iPad-model restaurant is being tried elsewhere. Bone's Restaurant in Atlanta uses iPads for its wine list. Co-owner Richard Lewis told USA Today that wine sales jumped 20% since the iPads were added in mid-2010. "It's the future," he said.


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33Comments
Feb 17, 2011 6:24PM
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Not a fan of this idea.  The more ways we use technology to de-personalize each and every experience, the less "social" we as a species will get, IMHO.

Part of living in a community and growing as a human being is in the interactions we have with other people in all facets of our daily lives.   Every time we eradicate or reduce our face-to-face interactions with each other, we become just that much more isolated from the human connections that shape us and really matter.

Just because we CAN use technology to change something, it doesn't mean we SHOULD.

Last time I checked, it was the "human touch" that made the dining experience better.  Great customer service can make an average meal better because it improves the overall dining experience.  We should be encouraging customer service, not finding ways to reduce it.

Feb 17, 2011 6:11PM
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I worked at a Fridays YEARS ago.  The restaurant spent thousands of dollars installing a  state of the art computer system that was supposed to "enhance the dining experience" by keeping track of ticket times, monitoring which tables were clean and ready to be sat, notifying the wait staff of a customer's needs, etc "at the touch of a button".  The system lasted all of 3 weeks.  IT WAS A NIGHTMARE!!!! All it did was over complicate EVERYTHING.  Technology still lags behind a well trained, courteous, restaurant staff
Feb 17, 2011 7:50PM
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Does anybody remember the studies decades ago where they gave baby monkeys the choice to cling to a hard, sterile mother-substitute with a milk supply, or a soft and cuddly one with no food...and they always picked the cuddly ones??? Social interaction is crucial to our well-being as a species, and we're rushing headlong towards the day when we'll never have to be in the presence of another human. How about the stereotype of a computer geek, socially awkward, uncomfortable with people, prefers to do all their communicating electronically...is this really a goal to shoot for? How about the woman on the cell phone who fell into the fountain? Calling someone a friend on Facebook doesn't truly entitle them to that title.

 

I don't hate electronics; computers are an awesome tool (six of them in my house), cell phones are a wonderful convenience...the list goes on, but life is more than efficiency and convenience. We are changing our species and our civilization in ways we will never foresee, and we haven't the wisdom to manage it.

Feb 17, 2011 6:32PM
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There are two reasons why I and probably most other people go out to eat.  One is that you're too tired or lazy to cook.  The second is to enjoy an excellent meal and the accompanying ambience including a talented but not overbearing or intrusive wait staff.  I might tolerate an iPad in the first instance.  In the second instance, it would be my last meal at that restaurant.
Feb 17, 2011 6:18PM
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What about substitutions?  Baked potato instead of curly fries.  Mashed potato instead of rice pilaf.  Chicken Casino, no eggplant.  There are times when you need to speak to an actual person before you make a decision about your meal.

Feb 17, 2011 4:59PM
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I suspect that after 6 busted screens every month or so, spilled drinks running down inside the unit's screen seal, screens with greasy "finger painting" ... OK, so maybe these will be used in establishments with a more "respectable" clientele, who have washed their hands at least once that day, and who leave their rug-rats at home.

Perhaps it may fly, but then I see a huge market for someone else (Microsoft? please, not Google) because frankly the "Apple is King" notion will surely be put to the test if this sort of technology is pressed into the mainstream restaurant table market.

But somehow, I think we're still 2-3 years away from this becoming viable in any sort of large scale in this context.
Feb 17, 2011 7:20PM
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 How romantic? Europeans will laugh at this... I see many couples already spending their precious dining time together using their I phone. it is the end of relationships!
Feb 17, 2011 6:19PM
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The iPad idea seems to be primarily designed to upsell the customer by presenting them with a ton of choices and suggestions. I don't think the server's job changes all that much, except for the need to wipe down and recharge the iPads at closing time every night, as well as provide tech support for all the "mine's not working" and "what do I do" tables.

I'm also not sure where the author got the "surely not 15%" idea. If all you do on the iPad is place the order and receive the check, but the server is still responsible for answering questions, ensuring the order is correct, delivering the food, refilling drinks, and generally keeping the customer happy. then I'm not sure why the tip would be substantially reduced. As a practical matter, I don't think a waiter would even save that much work, particularly since the iPads will likely increase order complexity substantially.

Feb 17, 2011 6:56PM
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I see dollar signs here I'm a computer technician, each time one of those ipads break or the network goes down, just call someone like me to come and do repairs. Looks like more jobs in the Information Technology field. At least you don't have to tip a computer!

Now, on to replacing cashiers at kmart other retail stores!
Feb 17, 2011 5:01PM
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I think it's hyperbole to suggest that this will take anybody's job away.  Last I checked, an iPad cannot carry food or silverware or walk you to your seat.  I have had experiences where it would have been better to have the iPad (really, miss, you're actually going to expect people who've had several drinks apiece to remind you what they had and who was buying?).  I would also imagine that the waitstaff might sometimes be vindicated when customers complain that they didn't get what they think they ordered, so it wouldn't just be one person's word against another's.
Feb 17, 2011 7:36PM
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Everyone seems to be overlooking the fact that the only thing the TABLET is doing is taking your order. The wait staff is still going to be the one to bring you your drink, your food and tending to your table.  NOT A ROBOT OR THE TABLET. So you still need to leave a tip and will still have human interaction to ask for suggestions or request info about a dish.

I really like the idea. It is a positive use of a tablet instead of just a media device to read , watch a show, or play a game on.

Feb 17, 2011 8:14PM
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As a Sr. Business Systems Analyst, I tend to look at things differently.  Everything is a process. When looking at a menu, I've often wondered why the menu couldn't be interactive.  Why do I have to decide what I want and then have to repeat it to someone?  Taking an "order" is just one small part of what wait staff do.  Often waiting for wait staff to come to the table to take an order just adds time to the dining experience.  A well designed electronic menu can address any special requirements.  Believe me, wait staff have heard them all.  I'm not sure that the iPad is the answer to this issue yet but it is a step in the right direction.   Personally, I think that the Microsoft Surface interactive table would be a better choice.  It would address the issue of cleanliness since the the table surface is routinely cleaned and since you're not passing around a single device, everyone can place  their orders at the same time.
Feb 17, 2011 7:37PM
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There are times when I want to get in, get my food and get out because I don't have much time (lunch comes to mind) but there are also times that I would like to be catered to. It depends on what type of dining experience you are looking for. I can appreciate both sides of the argument but don't dismiss this new tech just because your expectations are different. When I want to spend two hours eating lunch then I'll wait until I'm retired with nothing better to do. And no, I'm not anti-social; I just know what I want given certain conditions.

Feb 17, 2011 6:49PM
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This idea should have been in place years ago. I had an idea for a restaurant almost 5 years ago that used a computer at the table to order instead- so why do they act like it's such a new idea?
Feb 17, 2011 6:35PM
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I don't think technology will fully replace waiters in sit-down restaurants any time soon. I think Specialty's Cafes know how to use technology the right way when it comes to ordering. You can order online or at the touch-screen terminals inside the door. Or you can stand in line and talk to someone instead. Using the technology means your order is placed a little faster and you can even have your food ready at a scheduled time so you can pick it up. This system would work great for any cafe type of restaurant which operates more like a fast food place where you have to pick up your order but might get a buzzer to tell you when you can pick it up so you can take a seat while you wait for your food.
Feb 17, 2011 6:58PM
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It's an innovative idea that will work it's kinks as time progresses.  One idea that comes to mind was when I visited Japan and noticed that they do not take kindly to tipping.  As such, I came to realize that the tip was built into the cost of the meal.  I would imagine the Company taking the same approach.  In the US, we currently have tip added to the cost of our meals in places like South Beach Miami where tipping for the most part is not optional.  Having the tip built into the meal will also ensure that the waiter will at least be compensated for his services and at the same time have their tip come from a larger piece of the overall dining pie (as they will just serve food not take orders; think Pei Wei). 

 

The kids issue and the passing around of the Ipad is simply a logisitcal solution away. 

Feb 17, 2011 8:29PM
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I like it. I bet if you’re standing in line, you can use your cell to order ahead to the system while in line. More efficient. I get what most people are saying about how it’s impersonal and antisocial, but I gotta say I love it. I’m a good paying customer, yet everytime I go outto eat with my wife, we get dirty or exasperated looks when we need to order….Wonder why? We’re deaf and have to ask for paper and pen, and somehow waiters and other staff manage to make us feel like it’s our fault that we’re deaf and that we’re just adding to their already hectic day so they kind of take it personal, which is annoying as hell. Now that’s antisocial. This is a perfect idea for me and my wife.

Also, I imagine they would eventually have the ipad built into the wall of the booth, or maybe even in the tables as well, with a protective cover that you can eat over...something like that anyway. I don't think they're gonna want anyone handling the ipads freely.

Feb 17, 2011 8:06PM
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This isn't new, a couple years ago a restaurant in Westwood did this.  It was novel but like any new toy, once the newness fades away we get tired of it.  The restaurant closed six months later!

 

In the end, a restaurant first lives by its food and then by its pricing.  Bad waiters tend to disappear as the management gets feedback about them.

 

The one thing that would be nice is paying on the iPad.  Nothing more frustrating than waiting for your check.  And even worse, waiting for them to process credit card!  Waiters have lost a lot of tips from me for screwing up at the end!

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those ipads are going to get filthy. i can't imagine this working in a casual "fast food" operation. i could imagine it working in a 3 or 4 four star restaurant with an attentive "table aid" or something instead of a waiter/waitress. also, i imagine customers are going to have to type in special requests. what is going to happen when this gets to the kitchen: "one bacon cheeseburger, 86 lettuce, 86 tomato, sub salmon, add bbq sauce on side, 86 bun, add extra fries." it's going to happen. on the first day.
Feb 17, 2011 7:26PM
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This is a great idea but the only problem with this is that it will take away the use of waiters. Whenever I had a bad day, I would sometimes go to a restaurant and there would always be that friendly waiter that would just brighten my day. Sometimes, I would rather just talk to a human than use a machine.
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