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The Future of Dining: Tablets Instead of Talk

Airport diningI’ve just experienced what I suspect will be the future of dining, especially on-the-go dining, and it’s not pretty.

(This column will likely make me sound like an old codger, a techno Luddite as it were, but here goes…)

I was recently flying home on United Airlines and in United’s terminal C in the Newark Airport. Feeling hungry, I searched out food options. It wasn’t inspiring—Burger King, frozen yogurt, a hot dog place, a quasi-Italian restaurant that offered God-knows-how old slices of pizza starting at $7/slice (cheese only). So when I came upon Vesper Tavern, a sit-down restaurant peddling burgers that didn’t look too bad, I walked in.

I-Pad dining

Every diner in this airport restaurant had an individual I-Pad screen and Flo payment square.

A young waitress led me to a table where each seat faced a tablet with a credit card reader atop. I’d once before used these high-tech ordering systems in another airport so I wasn’t intimidated. But it was what I observed these gadgets doing to the dining experience that distressed me.

The server quickly activated my screen. It offered categories for drinks, sandwiches, entrees, and sides. I punched in my order for a burger, medium rare, and hit My Check. The screen asked if I wanted to spend a few thousand United Mileage points to buy my meal or pay with a credit card. It didn’t ask if I wanted to leave the server a tip, but it did ask if I wanted to scan my boarding pass for flight tracking. Nope, I just wanted a burger.

There were no instructions for what to do next. I tried sliding my credit card through the card reader, but no go.

device for auto pay dining

The Flo pay square not only allows diners to self-pay, it automatically adds a 15% tip to the bill.

Finally I flagged a server who quickly scanned my credit card. Then the screen asked for my email address to send my receipt. Since I already receive way too much spam, I declined. It didn’t offer me a printed receipt.

“Can I get a receipt?” I asked the server who’d scanned my credit card. (The IRS frowns when I claim expenses without a paper receipt.) Yes, he’d bring me a paper receipt.

Screens, Not People

As I sat waiting for my burger, I watched how other diners coped with this Star Trek style of dining. Most customers sat with their eyes glued to the tablet screens, even after ordering. With just a tap on the screen we could access ESPN, CNN, in fact the whole Google Universe. And that’s exactly what many diners did.

A father-son duo spent their time surfing the screen. The dad pulled up United Airline’s Marketplace and scrolled through all those goods you used to see in Sky Mall, the catalog formerly found in seatbacks on flights. The son watched a sports game. Neither spoke or looked at one another the entire 20 minutes I was in the restaurant.

Airport dining

This group of 20-somethings were more engrossed with their individual screens than one another.

I was especially disturbed watching a table of four 20-somethings—two men and two women—who were completely mesmerized by their individual screens. One man scrolled through CNN. The other had pulled up Google and was surfing the Web. One of the young women appeared enthralled with scrolling through the menu over and over, despite having already ordered. None of the four spoke to one another. The only time they acknowledged they were sitting together was to briefly clank glasses when their beers arrived. Then they promptly returned to the me-screens.

I noticed a few diners, most of them older, sat with their tablet screens off. (The screens go to dark after several minutes of no use.) But even those blackened screens, strategically placed between diners, had an isolating effect. Those people didn’t speak to one another either. They ate quietly staring at the blank screens. The screens acted like an electronic fence.

Goodbye Service

The tablets and the automatic 15% tip they added to every bill had an impact on the servers too. They didn’t have to take orders because the tablets took the orders. There was no, “Hello, I’m Shelly and I’ll be your server.” Or cheery, “What can I get you folks today?” There was no need to engage. The tablet had already done the work.

However, robots have yet to take on the function of serving the food and the waiters/waitresses still had to deliver the orders. My server, a young man who looked like he wished he were anywhere but working at this restaurant, delivered my burger with the briefest encounter. He literally flew by my table, barely breaking his stride to drop my plate.

United Airlines plane 3

United Airlines literally has a captive audience for the stuff it sells in its online Airport Mall.

There was no, “Can I get you anything else?” or “Enjoy your meal.” Nope, his tip was guaranteed by the tablet; he didn’t need to be polite, to give good service, or to connect with his customers. The tablet had removed the need to engage.

The Real Meaning of Food

I appreciate the efficiency of new technologies in the restaurant industry and I get the motivation—reducing costs and increasing profits–for using technology like tablet ordering. Perhaps restaurants believe it will also attract more tech-savvy young diners.

But, in my opinion, this technology is isolating for both diners and servers. It encourages diners to stare into screens rather than engaging with one another over food. It makes servers no more than automatons, silently delivering plates of food without engaging with customers.

airport dining screen

These screens let you buy stuff, track your flight, order a car, and search the internet.

What food is really about—or what it should be about–is breaking bread together, celebrating being with one another. It shouldn’t be about engaging with electronic devices while sitting next to one another.

For me, next time I’ll skip the restaurant with the high-tech ordering system. Instead, I’ll order the stale pizza. At least I’ll have a conversation with the person taking my order. – Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor




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Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor

RFT co-founder Bobbie Hasselbring has been a travel junkie her entire life. An award-winning writer and editor for more than 25 years and author of the regional food-travel bestsellers, The Chocolate Lover’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest and The Chocolate Lover’s Guide Cookbook, Bobbie is editor-in-chief at

4 thoughts on “The Future of Dining: Tablets Instead of Talk

  1. Nancy Keaton

    I agree. We always push the tablet way over to the edge of the table by the napkins and ketchup. We refuse to use it. I can easily see younger people who have grown up with electronic gadgets feeling quite comfortable with it, though. We may soon be making our dining choices by where we receive personal service.

  2. Jerry

    I agree with all of the comments about the tablets for dining at newark airport.

    From a business perspective, they empower the diner to do all the work and have guaranteed financial transaction including tip. They trade this “freedom of choice” for the customer interaction which was to incentivize for good service and quality food or drink. It is like shopping and you slide your credit card as if you were buying some shoes. The cost savings of tis method does not go to the customer unlike internet shopping and you are held hostage at your terminal (which always was the case but now the gate bound passenger has to use a tablet)
    Also the vendors push food items and drinks that appear to be brands that need help marketing and so the vendor probably not only gets products to promote but has a tablet that runs ads when you are trying to order
    This all means bigger $$$$ to the vendors (not sure who benefits here- the airport, restaurant franchises, airlines or all of the above) but the only clear loser is the customer.

    I agree with the lack if dining conversation but i typically travel slower

    Getting a glass of water throws the whole system out of whack since it is requires actually free and unrewarded service

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