Yes, the nostalgic romantics among us are bound to complain about alienation and dehumanization. But the digital generations who have grown up with the smartphone as a vital sensory organ will simply feel more at home as touchscreens, virtual reality and gesture control technologies come to restaurants to enhance customer experience (and incidentally, optimize profits and efficiency)!
“I saw a guy at Starbucks today. He had no smartphone, tablet, or laptop. He just sat there drinking his coffee. Like a psychopath.”
Whether you’re saddened, alarmed or just laughing out loud with it, this joke is spot on. We need our touchscreens and smartphone cameras and apps as extensions of our own selves. What is more, Homo Digitalis needs social media to ‘validate’ any experience and feels entitled to constantly being entertained and solicited for approval, feedback, likes&shares…
You’d think this would be disastrous for restaurants since they have always functioned essentially as physical meeting places for face-to-face interaction where patrons find entertainment in each other’s company. In fact, thanks to technological innovation and gamification, restaurants are coping quite well in the digital era.
The fast casual and casual segment of the industry was quick to embrace the potential of digital technology for improved efficiency, faster table turning, better quality of service, and ultimately improved competitiveness and profits. Digital cash registers, mobile devices, and comprehensive electronic POS systems were put in place to save time, maximize cost-effectiveness and minimize the human error factor. Once waiter writing pads were eliminated, the same technological advances would be put to use to win over the picky, restless, and blasé digital generation customers.
Restaurants nowadays have at their disposal a broad array of technologies to keep their patrons amused and engaged throughout their visit and to emulate the online experience at its best.
Push the Button
As the Sugababes will be the first to tell you, human beings love pressing buttons – not just to satisfy our curiosity, but also because it gives us a feeling of control.
Many restaurants now offer their customers a taste of this thrill and power (and convenience!) by installing service call systems. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes and functions – you can call the waiter, order another round of drinks, ask for the bill, or call the manager. Guests appreciate not having to engage in desperate attempts to catch the waiter’s eye or gesticulate wildly to ask for the bill (not to mention that the wireless button on the table is a great conversation starter 😉
Smart cards for a smart franchise concept
One of the best-known pioneers of chip card technology in the restaurant industry is Vapiano – a chain of Italian restaurants owned and run by Germans (and as the joke goes, very fortunate that it is not the other way round). Hardly surprising that they have opted for maximum efficiency with their smart cards.
Everyone gets a card when they enter the restaurant and swipe it as they order food at the different food stations (salad, pasta, pizza, drinks and desserts). Customers wait in line at the various counters, then pick a place to sit and enjoy their food, and pay on the way out. Their chip cards are processed at the check-out desk where they can settle the bill via their preferred method of payment.
Vapiano prides itself on using fresh ingredients only and everything is prepared to order in front of the customers. The latter are encouraged to discuss the food and recipes with the chefs and to customize their dish, adding or removing ingredients, herbs and spices.
As a hybrid between a classic and a fast-food restaurant, Vapiano tries to incorporate the best of both worlds. Three key elements that involve wait staff and consume time have been taken away from the tables thanks to the chip cards: guests choosing from the menu, waiting for their orders, and asking and waiting for the bill. The technology is thus instrumental in speeding up table turnover, saving time and wait staff costs, while providing customers with personal service from the chefs themselves. The original fast-casual concept is already proven and tested in 165 Vapianos in 32 countries on 5 continents.
From tablets to augmented reality
When tablets first started appearing at restaurant tables instead of traditional menus they were hailed as a great innovation. But consulting the menu is really the least you can do with them. Now the tabletop devices offer an ever expanding range of services including credit card readers, in-built cameras, calorie counters, tip calculators, a variety of content and games, and direct connection to social media.
Today, one of the largest providers of tabletop tablets in the U.S., Ziosk, boasts 2,500 locations with 150,000 tablets and 50 million guests a month, claiming that its platform is ‘a revenue center, not a cost center for the restaurant’.
Yet, some restaurant innovators are going further, transforming the entire table surface into an interactive tabletop. In 2014, Pizza Hut announced its interactive table concept as the likely “future of the Pizza Hut dine-in ordering experience”. The touchscreen surface allows guests to ‘design’ their own pizza and then play interactive games while waiting for their order.
Meanwhile, this very future had arrived in London already in 2009. Diners have been enjoying an interactive ordering system at the award-winning Asian fusion restaurant Inamo (now with two locations in Soho and Covent Garden), where the menu is projected directly on the table surface. Each table has a different look as guests are invited to ‘set the mood’ and customize their tabletop.
And why stop at tabletops when you can project onto walls, floors, and bar counters to transform them into motion-sensing displays and create a totally immersive experience?
‘World leader in video gesture control technology for interactive multi-touch surfaces’ GestureTek demonstrates these capabilities at the RichTree Natural Market Restaurant in Toronto.
Good things can come at the end, too!
U.S restaurateurs are preparing for adoption of the global EMV standard for chip-enabled payment cards (to replace magnetic stripe cards). The chip-and-pin cards and the various available pay-at-the table solutions can make paying and splitting the bill (and tipping) an easier, but not necessarily a more pleasant, experience for customers.
At its best, gamification can transform a tedious, annoying or otherwise unpleasant obligation into a fun activity. So what better way to conclude our overview of restaurant gadgets and apps than with a piece of ‘hilarious tech’.
Equitable (initially Equipay) is an app that gamifies the awkward bill-splitting moment, taking it to new satirical heights! It is the 2016 Comedy Hack Day Grand Prize winner (and in case you’re wondering about Comedy Hack Day, it is ‘a live event series that invites comedians, developers, and designers to come together, drink free booze, and build hilarious tech’).
It’s not about splitting the bill equally, but equitably. The app calculates how much each person should pay taking into account their race and gender privileges. Drawing on historical race and gender wage inequality (and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), the app generally requires men to pay more than women; and white males to pay more than black males (but less than Asians); Latinas, who may earn as little as 54 cents for every dollar men make, will get the smallest share of the bill, paying slightly less than black females (64 cents for a male dollar).
And to really appreciate how much fun Equitable is, make sure you use the ‘protest’ feature and see how the app will blow off each of your misconceived objections 🙂
Must-see: Reparations One Meal at a Time. Equitable Presentation at Comedy Hack Day, January 2016