Taking Matters Into Your Own Hands… And The End Of Sucky Service

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Is it just me or does it bother you to no end when the wait staff doesn’t write down your order in a restaurant?

Let’s flip that question: if you have even been on the service side of the restaurant business, how annoying are customers who attempt to customize their order to the point where they may as well just go into the kitchen and cook whatever they want? Let’s pass it back to the customer side: how often do you get the wrong order or something is missing? The system is like this because of the human factor. It’s one long (and often bad) game of broken telephone. Here’s how the process currently works:

  1. You have to wait for the server to come to your table (and who knows how long that will take).
  2. You give the wait staff your order (they sometimes write it down/they sometimes don’t).
  3. The wait staff either hangs the order by the chef’s face to prep it, or they walk over to station and input it into a computer system.
  4. Your food arrives as ordered… or not… but you never know where you are in the process or how long it’s going to take to get your food.

There’s an app for that.

Chili’s (melted cheese, tex mex, baby back ribs, fajitas and more) may be at the forefront of making the wait staff nearly obsolete. Today, the family dining restaurant announced that it finished installing Android tablets at every table of their 823 company-owned restaurant in the U.S., according to GigaOm. Currently, it is the menu, the ability to pay by credit card when you’re done (this includes the option of scanning coupons and leaving a tip) along with some interactive features (like checking in on Facebook and a couple of Android games), but it’s not hard to see where this is leading.

Why stop at the menu?

Once you have the tablet on the table, why not allow customers to make their order as soon as they like. It diminishes (or completely removes) the margin of error. The customer can then be told where the food is in the process, how long it will take or what the anticipated wait time is. You can get a refill on your sugary beverage just by pressing a button and much more.

Why stop at the table?

Seeing as this technology exists on an Android tablet, why not uncouple it from the physical location or table? Why not allow everyone to make a reservation, and even order their food before they arrive (hey, if you’re late… and the food is cold, you have no one else to blame but yourself)?

Can you see where this is going?

It’s not such an earth-shattering innovation, when you think about it. This technology exists. Chili’s digitized their menus to be more cost-effective. In a one screen world – a place where screens are everywhere, ubiquitous, cheap and connected – this makes sense. Instead of updating thousand of printed menus that wear out over time, and are hard to maintain consistency across the nation, Chili’s now has the ability to change everything from the food on the menu to the prices and the specials, instantly and on-the-fly. That’s powerful. What would make this that much more powerful is giving more power to the customer: allow them to control everything from what they order to when they order it, and enabling them to have more feedback.

The data is staggering as well.   

Chili’s is going to have a wealth of data about their operations. As they roll out more and more functionality, they will be able to be that much efficient with everything from ordering to knowing which regional areas could support an additional restaurant and beyond. As consumers get more comfortable with this type of technology, think about the depth of personalization that Chili’s will know (and they have the personal data down to credit card information). This is great if you just want to hit a button to make your regular order, but this is terrifying if Chili’s shares this information (say with the insurance companies). Sure, it’s great to order your Buffalo Chicken Ranch Sandwich and cold beer at the touch of a button, but it may be sad to watch your insurance premiums go up when that information is shared, and your insurer knows – down to the pint – how much you love the ale. At a macro level, this type of technology also enables Chili’s to hire fewer and fewer people, as the vast majority of their wait staff is suddenly just shuffling plates from the kitchen to the tables (a job that is closer to being a bus boy than a waiter).

So, is this brilliant and the best scenario for consumers or will this type of disruption cause many more issues in the long run?