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MARCH 2015: Technology in restaurants: where is it taking us?

This article was first published in Issue 2 of the CODE Quarterly

A new industrial revolution is happening and it is not represented by an iron structure built in the middle of Paris. This revolution is supported by dark rooms in distant lands – servers processing your apps, your social media timelines, your daily steps through the city.

In the world of service and hospitality we have online booking apps, with OpenTable being the main player; and iPads are now appearing on tables instead of waiters. Therefore, business sense means we need to investigate ways to get connected and tapped into the app-savvy foodie. So technology is booming, but where is it taking us? And how does it affect the hospitality industry, from the inside and as a guest?

Thomas Keller stole headlines last year by signing up with Tock, a ‘comprehensive toolbox’ that includes a system allowing guests to pay up front. Tipping is eliminated, no shows are financially covered, and staff management is streamlined. With no show rates even at popular restaurants in the West End, on a Saturday night, reaching 20%, this is a big deal. And planning, after all, is the key to a good business model.

As someone permanently connected to my smart phone, I confess, I love it all. I love the lurking on Twitter, I love the constant emailing, WhatsApp-ing and Instagram-ing. And the idea of pressing a button and paying for my meal, as I book the time and date that suits me, appeals. The ease, the instant gratification of a job done - that’s dinner sorted until my iPhone diary reminds me. But, there is this nagging feeling that all this efficiency is missing something. As a tiny violin plays ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ in the back of my head, I am aware that this sounds like a well-worn topic that happens in every generation.

In October last year the New York Times Magazine ran an article ‘Can you Uber a burger?’ which likened the idea of dining out to events – “inspired by the way we pay for concerts, airline tickets and […] Uber”. The excitement people spoke about the possibilities with hospitality and technology in this article was catching – are we entering a brand new world?

I spoke to a number of people in the industry based in London (GMs, op managers, chefs, waiters) about this topic of technology. Most wanted to be off the record, understandably as everyone is still thinking about these concepts and no one has a firm opinion yet. I did manage to corner Dan Doherty, Executive Chef at Duck & Waffle, with the question – “do you think ticketing systems will become status quo?” His answer was “hell no!” Pause. Then tempered with “I hope not”. This led us into a somewhat existential conversation about what is the industry?

Pop-up restaurants are an eating experience more akin to concerts and theatre, therefore it is not surprising that the successful pop-up venture ‘Art of Dining’ is a collaboration between a set designer and a chef. Ticketing is an essential part of the pop-up business model, and who doesn’t like going to a special event? But, how about the average restaurant? The permanent spaces that need staff continuously, and places that want to train, support and develop their staff. How does technology feed into those dynamics?

And so it is about asking the question ‘what is this industry?’ For another project, I interviewed a chef about what cooking meant to him – he said he doesn’t cook for himself because food is for sharing. This resonated with me about what the food and service industry is. We go out to share a bottle of wine with friends, to share stories with family, to share space with other people, in a beautiful environment – to be part of something. Food and the service are part of that sense of sharing and togetherness. So how will technology interact with that aspect of this industry?

Another facet of this topic is tipping. Tipping is a huge subject, and it is hard to delve into without references to Reaganomics or to how to organise a Tronc system. The tipping culture in Europe is different to the US and it is worth noting that a lot of these technology ideas are coming from the States. But, having worked in many pop-ups I know that within a ticketing system guests don’t tip for what they have already paid for. With this in mind, I wonder about the app Zapper. This sounds brilliant, a work lunch, a busy restaurant and you’re stuck waiting for your server to be free to take your money – being able to scan a code into your phone and walk away at your own convenience? Yes please. But it does distance guests from the waiter, and without having the moment of a real person in front of them, would guests forget to tip?

This instant-ness that apps offer is bringing the business and guests together, at a risk of forgetting the people in between from KP to GM. There is a chance that staff will feel like just a cog in the wheel, and a sense of career and pride in being part of the industry, could get lost. And, it is that in-between-ness that creates the convivial environment. And so, a tip is like the hand written thank you note – a personal gesture that says ‘thank you for making this experience, this moment of sharing time with friends, so great’. And just like thank you notes, sometimes we need our mothers (“a discretionary service charge has been added to your bill”) to remind us to write them. Seafood restaurant Rex & Mariano in Soho allows customers to order from iPads and therefor only charges 5% service on top of the meal. It makes perfect sense, but are the staff missing out?

Therefore, the answers to how technology can work in this industry, can be found in what we want food and hospitality to mean; what is our service culture? And how do we want staff to feel about the work they do? Good staff will always be needed, and that comes from valuing their input in the business. We know technology can’t solve all our problems, but I think now is the right time to think about what road technology will lead us down? Will this new industrial revolution build another Eiffel tower, and is that what we actually want?


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