Is the waiter an endangered species? Visit the right British restaurants and you might assume so. This evening, you could eat at Piccolino and scan QR codes on the menu to find out more about the dishes, self-order at London’s Inamo using its touch-screen e-tables, and use an app to settle your bill online at Pizza Express. All of which will minimise your interaction with actual real-life waiting staff.
This is just the start. Among hospitality-focused tech companies there is much excitement (pdf) about such DIY “solutions”. A future where you are issued with an iPad on arrival, or are asked to use your phone or a kiosk to order and pay is not far away; the waiters will simply deliver the food to your table. The software is here already. For instance, Wagamama’s mobile app enables you to order and pay for takeaway food for collection later. Such self-ordering and self-payment technology can easily be tweaked to work in a restaurant context.
Why is this happening? Because the restaurant industry loves anything that helps it turn tables quicker, reduce staff costs and minimise training. Who needs product knowledge or training in the dark arts of upselling when an electronic menu screen at the table can display endless information about each dish and step-by-step customer sales prompts?
Indeed, there is anecdotal evidence that, if diners are left alone, they actually spend more. For many people, there is something almost adversarial about eating out – a sense that restaurants are out to rip us off, that you must remain constantly alert. Put people in control of the ordering process and, conversely, they let their guard down. Suddenly, it’s their decision to have that extra drink or dessert. They don’t feel that they are being hustled into it.
So far, the change has been most profound in wine. Sommeliers must nervously finger their silver lapel grapes (no, that isn’t a euphemism) every time another restaurant puts its wine list on an iPad. At Manchester’s Australasia, you browse an online wine catalogue which is hosted, updated and managed – such is the modern world – by a firm in New York. That web access is restricted, of course. Restaurants don’t want you surfing porn or streaming movies at your table, much less going online to compare their wine prices with a retail vintner’s. Maze, Bread Street Kitchen and the Vineyard at Stockcross are just some of the venues which have followed suit.
Personally, I’m torn. I won’t use self-service supermarket tills because they put people out of work and, for many customers, nattering to the checkout staff is precious social interaction. I should hate such automation. In the realm of wine specifically, though, the iPad has a kind of irresistible cultural momentum. An electronic wine list is perfect for a country which, on the whole, has limited wine knowledge and where people are useless at asserting themselves in restaurants.
In theory, putting yourself in a sommelier’s hands, outlining what you want and paying a reasonable premium for that expertise should add to the pleasure of your meal. In reality, many sommeliers lack the people skills to negotiate this exchange and too many restaurants are still happy to land guests with unexpectedly expensive wines. Few Britons – me included – feel able to confidently state: “I like grape X and country Y and I’ll pay £Z.” Dealing with a sommelier is fraught with anxiety. Who wouldn’t prefer to browse tasting notes, food-matching suggestions and a price list on an iPad?
More broadly, however, this dehumanising of the restaurant experience is, surely, a bad thing. Not disastrous, no: the food, and what it costs, will always be more important. But in the fast-casual sector where these robot restaurants will flourish (pad, pen and personalised service will endure at fine dining level), will the customer really benefit? I don’t want to “work” when I’m eating out, pressing buttons and clicking through screens. Nor do I want to spend ages poring over the background info contained in an electronic menu (too much of a good thing), when I could be talking to the people I’m with.
Finally, self-ordering also removes even the possibility of great service. In Britain, where it has never been treated as a serious profession, you may think that boat has sailed. But on those rare occasions that you come across a good waiter – a natural who can correctly calibrate chat, wise recommendations, speed and efficiency – it can transform your night. In the restaurant of 2015, where we sit down and log in to buy our dinner as we might a DVD or train ticket online, will something have been lost?