Waiters present a problem.
As a customer, you have to wait for them. Eventually they arrive, interrupting your conversation, saying, "Hi, I'll be your server this evening." Then you have to listen to them recite, often unsuccessfully, the menu specials, and push high-margin, high-calorie hors d’oeuvres, drink "specials," and desserts on you. And, for that, you have to tip them.
If you're a restaurant owner, waiters are costly and, as a group, notoriously unreliable, known, for example, for partying hard after the restaurant closes (eating and drinking the restaurant's fare) and then not showing up the next day. But these drawbacks and annoyances could be a thing of the past.
Now, there's E la Carte, the creator of Presto, a digital waiter on a tablet, handed to you as you enter the restaurant. The company, founded in 2008, enables you to see graphics and descriptions of everything on the menu, and lets you order with a tap of the finger. It even offers video games you can play with your dining partner while waiting for your food to be served. The tablet technology has proved so promising that Groupon founders Eric Lefkofsky and Brad Keywell invested $4 million in the company.
It may take a while, but I wouldn't be surprised if, except in some high-end restaurants, e-waiters replace flesh-and-blood waiters, just as ATMs replaced most bank tellers. One might argue that digital waiters will further restrict us from human connection. But wouldn't you rather interact with your flesh-and-blood dining partner rather than your flesh-and-blood waiter? Some patrons, of course, prefer to be waited on by a human being.
After all, self-serve cafeterias did not end the full-service restaurant business. And I suspect many restaurants, for starters, at least, will give patrons a choice between your waiter and a tablet. But I predict that sooner rather than later, iPad-waiters will put many waiters out of work. Yes, that will cost the nation jobs — the last thing this economy needs. But should we lament the decline of the waiter any more than we lamented the decline of the bank teller when the ATM was invented?
Marty Nemko, holds a Ph.D. specializing in the evaluation of innovation from the University of California, Berkeley and subsequently taught in its graduate school.
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