Is this the end of waiters?

More restaurants are encouraging diners to order by app or kiosk, hoping to cut costs and increase traffic.

By MSN Money Partner Jun 11, 2014 12:54PM
Image: Couple ordering meal in restaurant © NULL/CorbisBy Venessa Wong, Businessweek

On Tuesday, BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse (BJRI), a chain of 151 casual dining restaurants, launched a new app that allows diners to place their orders before they arrive and pay at the end of the meal, removing the need to wait for a server to bring you a menu, take your order, and deliver the check and change. 

To make sure the food's hot, the kitchen doesn't fire up your meal until you've been seated.

BJ's chief executive Gregory Trojan believes the traditional flurry of tasks handled by waiters distracts them from their more important job: being hospitable. 

The app, he says in an interview, aims not to reduce staff or turn servers into robots who just transport food from the kitchen to the table but to relieve them of certain duties so they can be more attentive to customers.

The larger problem Trojan hopes the app will address is speed. In traditional full-service restaurants, all that service takes time, which is bad during peak hours when turning over tables means sales. He says that by allowing customers to take care of ordering and payment themselves, the average one-hour meal is cut down to about 35 minutes. 

To further encourage time-strapped diners to order ahead, BJ's puts them on a wait list to be seated once their mobile order comes in, rather than when they arrive at the restaurant.

By quickening service, Trojan also hopes to better compete with fast casual restaurants, which in recent years have lured many customers away from full-service with quality food served quickly, at lower prices. BJ's same-store sales decreased 1.1 percent last year.

"We have seen too many restaurant companies eliminate the ability to build sales by trying to save on labor by cutting their sales force, reducing the number of hosts at the front desk, and minimizing kitchen staff," said CFO Gregory Levin during an earnings call in May. "Therefore, we must and we will hold our line in labor so that we continue to provide great service to our guest and not make rash labor decisions that could tarnish our brand going forward."

While the app reduces the amount of running around servers have to do, during testing in Southern California, BJ's found that customers who ordered ahead actually tipped more -- although it's worth noting that the app automatically sets the gratuity to 18 percent, which can be adjusted up or down. It's also worth pointing out that as of now, you can't split a check if you pay by app.

BJ's is just the latest restaurant to remove waiters from the ordering process. Panera (PNRA), in an effort to reduce errors that occur during ordering, is trying a new store format in which customers can order by kiosk or smartphone and have their food brought to their table. McDonald's (MCD) has also been experimenting with kiosks overseas.

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Jun 11, 2014 1:54PM

Does 'everything' have to be automated? Personally, I enjoy the whole experience of being seated, handed a menu, asking the waiter questions about the menu, relaxing and taking my time ordering and waiting for my food while I sip a drink and relax.


This whole 'app' thing is going out of control. Why do we have to go overboard on everything we do in this country?



Jun 11, 2014 1:33PM
I don't agree with raising the min wage to $15, but...  I also don't think removing even more jobs is the answer either.  I've refused to use an app at Applebee's when offered and HATE the self check out at grocery stores and some other places.  Customer Service is disappearing in our society and it's sad and irritating.
Jun 11, 2014 1:45PM
Ordering is one thing, but you can't replace the waiter or waitress who refills your coffee and tea, who checks to make sure your order was filled right and helps you clean up the milk spilled by your toddler. Restaurants are not just selling food, but they're selling an enjoyable experience, a relaxing atmosphere and somebody to wait on you can't be replaced by a machine.
Jun 11, 2014 1:57PM

Restaurants going the way of the gas station. Used to be someone would fill your tank, wash your windshield, fill your tires with air and give you a big smile.


Now, its 'swipe your card, pump your own gas and get out of the way for the next car'.


We are losing our culture to data processing.



Jun 11, 2014 1:47PM
Be careful what you ask just might get it! Remember years ago when the banks first offered automated telling machines and said this would not eliminate jobs, just give our customers another option. How did that work out? Reduced staffs that's how. This idea if it catches on will end up the exact way, you can bet the house on it.
Jun 11, 2014 1:37PM
The day the restaurants do away with the waiters.waitresses, I'll open one with both....
Jun 11, 2014 1:42PM
If I put in my own order and the person who brings it to me makes $15 an hour, I am certainly not leaving a tip.  Yes, this will be the end of waiters.  Ask anyone who works as a server whether they are for or against raising restaurant minimum wage to $15 an hour, and the server will tell you they are not for it.  They want benefits and sick pay, but they want their tips.  The reason they get tips is because they don't make minimum wage.
Jun 11, 2014 1:43PM
I'm not against "progress", but we are slowly loosing the personal touch and service from a live human beings.  Yes mistakes are made, but eliminating their jobs is not the answer.  I rather order from a waitress or waiter where you can talk to someone ask questions or get a pleasant compliment from them.
Jun 11, 2014 1:35PM
This is nothing more than a stepping stone to eliminating staff - more jobs lost. I like the idea because alot of waiters are annoying - but let's don't kid ourselves. Faster turnover and less staff means more money for the restaurants. Get ready in 10 - 20 years - there will be very few jobs of any kind available.
Jun 11, 2014 1:43PM
This is the worst thing that can happen.  Personal service was one of the best things in going to a restaurant.   Some people may say this will eliminate errors but the cooks are still human so there will ALWAYS be errors, but they will just blame it on you because you placed the order.  Also, when you need help, no one will be around to ask.  It's time to stop with all the electronic devices and start thinking about everyone or some day we will be like the movie IROBOTS and have the electronic devices start running us.

Think about the future and not the present.  It may look good now but just wait.
Jun 11, 2014 1:52PM
Sounds just like when stores started using "self check out" , under the guise that it speeds up service. What they failed to tell everyone is that studies show that each self serve checkout station eliminates over 2 employees . I can't help but believe that it will take less staff to serve the food than it does to also take orders , thereby cutting the restaurants overhead .  And the article says that the app used to order automatically includes an 18% tip ; what if the service is lousy? Guess I am old school , and would rather sit down and relax while I look at the menu, have someone take my order  , and pay the tip according to the level of service I receive . JMO
Jun 11, 2014 2:25PM
Why would the tip amount be so high when they only give less than half the service that would normally occur
Jun 11, 2014 2:10PM
And how exactly is unemployment going to go down when technology is taking more and more jobs away? 
Jun 11, 2014 1:21PM
There are already some fast food places that now have kiosks instead of cashiers.  You order by punching the buttons and swipe your card to pay.  As of now, a person still gives you your order, but that could soon change without much trouble.  Fast food restaurants could consist of a couple of cooks in the back and somebody to clean up.  Cook your order, bag it, and slide it down a chute right to you - no human contact necessary.  This could cut labor costs by 30% or more.  Some of you fast food workers who think you deserve $15/hr could be out of a job sooner than later.
Jun 11, 2014 2:01PM
I go to a restaurant to spend time there though...why would I want to be in and out in 35 minutes...
Jun 11, 2014 2:39PM
We go out to eat to get waited on. I'm quite tired of an 'app' to replace all thought.  People that refuse to take the damn phone out of their hands from the time they get up to the time they go to bed, I find quite annoying. And, it's not just the kids anymore. People in their 50's, 60's, on up are rudely tuning others out more and more while they dick with their phones all day long.
Jun 11, 2014 1:49PM

All the strip club addicts are gonna be surprised in the future when they order a lap dance and hear the buzz of a robot headed toward their chair and then feel the nuts and bolts moving and grooving! in thier lap!!!!

Jun 11, 2014 2:09PM

I do understand that wait staff should get a fair wage, but not $ 15 a hour and certainly not fast food

places.  Everything will go up to cover the increase and no one is going to pay more for

a hamburger that was a $ 1  and now is $ 5.  Automated services will certainly cut out costs and people  will not have jobs and then what?  Don't these people get it.  Higher wages equal higher

prices and you still in up in the same boat as you were before or even worse. 

Jun 11, 2014 2:07PM
I knew restaurants would find a way around being forced to pay more on minimum wages. Eliminate as much of the work force as possible. One step forward and three steps backwards for these employees. Be careful of what you wish for. It could cost you in the end.
Jun 11, 2014 1:56PM
At first I like the idea of dealing with the least amount of people possible throughout my day, but...look, if I were ordering lunch and I'm strapped for time on my break, this is a speedy alternative-it works!  However, if I am going out for a leisurely dinner, I feel like being lazy and taking my time, so I would actually prefer someone else do the work for me while I sit and enjoy myself.  I think it is circumstantial.
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