Sunday, May 7, 2017

Press the Button

The little tablet at the end of my table at Olive Garden glows brighter than the too-bright lights of the restaurant around it, shuffling through a slideshow of pastas and wine.

The tablet is a Ziosk, made by the Dallas company formerly known as TableTop Media. In the past five years, Ziosks and their main competitor, Presto tablets, made by a Silicon Valley company called E la Carte, have trickled onto the tables of many of America’s great suburban chains. Today, you can find them in nearly five thousand restaurants across the country, in Chili’s and Outbacks, in Red Robins and Applebee’s.

A few swipes, a couple cautious pokes, and I’ve ordered a glass of pinot grigio for me, a pinot noir for my date, plus a three-app platter (mozz sticks,stuffed shrooms, fried calamari) to share.

Then Jessica, our server, stops by. She asks if she can get us started with any drinks or appetizers. There’s an awkward pause, like when an acquaintance asks after a recent ex. Waving toward the tablet, I explain we’ve already ordered. I feel guilty that the device could steal her job, but she doesn’t seem to mind.

Maybe that’s because the tablet can’t carry food, or handle cash, or convey to the kitchen that I might like my linguine di mare with sauce on the side and meatballs instead of shrimp. It definitely can’t compliment my date’s haircut, or make a joke about the traffic, or answer my questions about whether or not it likes working at a place with tablets on every table. But it can take a normal order, and lets me pay with a card at the precise moment I want to leave, and then fill out a little survey about my meal. If I happen to have a kid with me, or realize with sudden revulsion that I can no longer stand to even look across the table at my companion, I could even pay an extra $1.99 for access to the tablet’s library of games, and then crush some trivia while I wait for my bottomless breadsticks to be replenished.

In the fancier precincts of the food-service world, where watching a barista spend four minutes prepping a pour-over coffee is a customer’s idea of a good time, robots might not seem like the future of food culture. But spend some time at the restaurants where the majority of Americans eat every day, and you’ll catch a distinct whiff of automation in the air.

Andrew Puzder, former CEO of the company that owns Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s (and Donald Trump’s humiliatingly rejected nominee for secretary of labor), has been leading the charge, loudly trumpeting the benefits of replacing front-of-house workers with self-service kiosks at every chance, specifically in response to what he claims are the business-crippling threats of higher minimum wages and—of course—Obamacare. Machines, you see, don’t need to get paid or go to the hospital. And as he told Business Insider last year, “they’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, and there’s never a slip and fall, or an age-, sex-, or race discrimination case.”

Given job creators’ distaste for organic employees, it’s easy to see how automation might play out in Quick-Service Restaurants, or QSRs—the industry term for both fast-food operations like Hardee’s and slightly more upscale “fast casual” restaurants, like Chipotle. You already have to stand in line, order your own food, and then (in most cases) pick your order up at the counter when it’s ready. Pop a couple kiosks up front, maybe let people order on their phones, and bingo, you’ve automated away all the cashiers. This process is already under way: Panera Bread has had kiosks for years, McDonald’s has started to test them out at certain stores, and Wendy’s announced in February that it plans to install bots at one thousand locations by the end of 2017.

But the tabletop tablets at the Olive Gardens and Outbacks of the world seem like a stranger fit. In the industry jargon, these are “casual dining” restaurants, table-service operations that aren’t quite as fancy as “fine dining” restaurants. Technically, any cheapish place with full service falls into the casual dining bucket, from greasy spoons to dim sum palaces, but the big chains make up about half of the category, and the bigger companies in the ecosystem—like Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden, and DineEquity, which owns Applebee’s and IHOP—are some of the biggest employers in the country. Could touch screens swipe away half of those jobs?

by Sam Dean, Lucky Peach |  Read more:
Image: Erik Carter