A brief dispatch from the technology front crosses the Hot Air desk this weekend, and one which may be of particular interest to those of you who enjoy dining out. The title of this piece is, in fact, a bit misleading. There isn’t an army of actual robots cast off from the set of Lost in Space racing to take jobs away from restaurant servers, but there may be something similar coming soon to an eatery near you. Your waiter may soon be turning into an iPad.
When I sat down across from Rajat Suri, who dropped out of an MIT doctoral program in chemistry, so he could tell me about his startup, I could practically smell the Next Big Thing in the air. This is, of course, why he wanted me to meet me at this place, but we’re not just there for the ambiance.
Suri gestures to a device that I’ve never seen that’s sitting on our table. It sort of looks like a small iPad, maybe a thick Kindle Fire. Presto is its name. The screen shows an animation that says, “Touch me!” with half a dozen different animations. It’s a menu and a way to order food and a method for paying the check all in one. The Presto functions like a better, more responsive version of the touchscreen food ordering system on Virgin America…
With no instructions, I order the two items through the Presto. Beautifully lit photos let me see what I’m going to get. The UI is intuitive. Within 20 seconds, I’ve sent my order to the kitchen. Before we’d even finished eating, I swiped my card slightly awkwardly into the built-in payment slot, added a tip, and settled up. I would not say that this machine will blow your mind with its technical capabilities, but that’s exactly the point: It just works.
I get it, while also seeing a few immediate downsides. Having a task specific tablet which displays all of the options, allows you to send your order to the kitchen and pay by credit card isn’t just a convenience. It adds a lot of flexibility to the ordering process and could even drive up sales. Allowing customers to see a nice, colorful picture of the dish – particularly if they’re unfamiliar with it – could help out diners and spur sales for new offerings. Also, unlike a paper menu, the owner can change up the menu as the kitchen runs out of a particular item or switches to a different entree. (In fact, Wired Magazine was featuring the next generation of these tools back in 2010.)
But the nostalgic old fool in me just doesn’t like the idea. I’ve always felt that top notch service was one of the hallmarks of a truly great dining experience. Competition is intense for positions as servers in top end restaurants where you can rack up some pretty good tips. The best ones make the experience of dining out far more of a pleasure than simply eating good quality food.
I’d also hate to see all those jobs go away. Of course, it’s not as if all of the wait staff jobs go away. Somebody still has the bring the food out, refill the drinks and such. But if they aren’t taking orders, fewer staff can cover more tables, and that would have to lead to fewer jobs. Plus, for those who retain their jobs, I have to wonder if we diners will be inclined to tip them as much if there’s an electronic gizmo performing one of the main functions of their jobs for them. And – again – the experience of having someone come and read you the specials, answer questions, make suggestions and just interact with you like a regular, living, breathing human being is something that a touch screen will never do.