I’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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