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Robots vs. waiters future hotly debated

October 24, 2014 --

I wrote about the possibility of McDonald’s possible automating away its cashiers. Now Mickey Ds denies that’s the intention of their plan to, as the Wall Street Journal puts it, “roll out new technology in some markets to make it easier for customers to order and pay digitally and to give people the ability to customize their orders, part of what the company terms the ‘McDonald’s Experience of the Future’ initiative.”

Indeed, economist Adam Ozimek argues that machines in place of cashiers wouldn’t really save much time or lead to increased sales, but adds that “in the event of a $15 minimum wage, I think the calculus here would change, but right now machines don’t have a huge operating advantage in these environments.”

Sit-down restaurant servers, however, might be a different matter:


Right now you wait for a server to come to your table, you order you drinks and wait again, then you wait for them to come back so you can order your meal, and there is still more waiting at the end of the meal. If you need anything else along the way you are waiting until they check in again. It’s true that in a restaurant we are often not in a hurry, but even assuming we don’t always want to order immediately, the server does not materialize after an exactly optimal wait time, but instead appears with some random noise that’s unlikely to match our preferences. Some would rather order in 30 seconds after the server arrived, some would rather order 30 seconds before they arrived. Optimal doesn’t mean rushed, but it allows rushed, and it means you choose your pace.

And it’s not just impatient customers who wish to speed thing up. For restaurants, every minute extra you are at a table beyond when you want to be is time that another customer ordering food could be there. In other words, it’s in their interest to speed things up and get more sales per table per day.

Although I have never seen one myself, this table top ordering system is exactly what the company Ziosk has been providing at places like Chilis and Red Robin. If I understand correctly -and correct me if I’m wrong, Chilis fans- you only use these things to order appetizers, drinks, and deserts, and then to pay the bill. The actual meal order is taken by waitstaff. This makes some sense, since the beginning and end of the meal are the biggest periods of “wasted” time, so the system is getting rid of the lowest hanging fruit first. So maybe this is where it will end. But this also could easily represent a toe in the water for the industry. It allows customers and employees to get familiar with the system, and has a built in human on hand in case computer ordering not working for someone. You can imagine the machines gradually taking over all ordering eventually.


Of course, high-end restaurants might continue to use human servers as a novelty or special attraction for their upscale clientele. Something a bit more artisinal. Indeed, people may be willing to pay extra for human messiness and irregularity for all sorts of goods and services as they value the human and hand-crafted and hand-delivered over robotic perfection and efficiency. At least, if money or time isn’t an issue.

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