Friday, March 23, 2012

Can waiters be replaced?

I was amused and gratified at the same time to read this:

My name is Katie. I went to Dartmouth, and I am a waitress.

I was lucky. I started waitressing in high school, but after college I moved to New Orleans and worked at the Besh Restaurant group, which for three days sequestered its staff for an "Excellence in Service" seminar taught by Eric Weiss. It started with a group of waiters and waitresses standing around banquet trays covered with spoons, matchbooks, limes, and pens of various varieties. We were told to study what we saw, return to our seats and write down everything we could remember: good memories could make us excellent servers.

Beyond the memory games, the course included pearls like: Don't ask table 51 if they would like "another" cocktail, ask if they would like a "fresh" cocktail—the former may make them feel like a boozehound. Don't assume the beautiful woman with the power broker at 22 is his wife. It could be his secretary—be discreet. Don't ask how "we" are doing this weekend—you will sound like a dope. Guests always have the right-of-way, then the food, then you—fade into the wall, kiddo! Don't walk too fast when seating guests—they might get lost. Try using thoughtful details to remember names, like Cowboy Curtis for the guy in boots and Labradorean Leslie for the lady with the dog sweater. And always, always, always read your guest.

The power broker may want you to sing, dance, and make him look like a big shot in front of his lady. But the boozehound wants you to cut the crap and pour the wine. According to Weiss, an excellent server knows the difference immediately.

… According to Weiss, sequence of service should include the following: within two minutes of sitting down, guests should be greeted with water. Drinks should arrive in five minutes—if you didn't order a fancy cocktail. If your liquor has been infused, cut the bar chef some slack. Appetizers should arrive in 10 minutes, and the next course in another 10. Dishes should be brought to the guest who ordered them and not auctioned off—this isn't Sotheby's. Dirty plates and silverware should be replaced, napkins refolded, and steak knives set. When servers are not busy, they should stand up straight and reside quietly in their sections.

At more casual spots where these orthodox white-tablecloth standards don't apply, the staff simply needs to be kind, genuine, and attentive. Many of the hipper restaurants seem to pick and choose which standards they adopt. I recently trailed a server at a popular Brooklyn restaurant, where I was told not to leave the cork on the table during wine service because "this is Williamsburg."  

... A veteran manager at a Michelin-starred Brooklyn establishment told me that he thinks we are missing the point. "At a trendy restaurant I am happy if I get what I order," he said, adding that the waitstaff at these places are usually hired for their beauty, not their frontal lobes.

I don’t know if it was the chirpy tone of the article or the seriousness in which she takes her job but I was gratified that there are people who can still take pride in what they do. And at the same time points to how, just maybe waiters cannot be replaced.

And then there is this:

It sort of looks like a small iPad, maybe a thick Kindle Fire. Presto is its name. The screen shows an animation that says, "Touch me!" with half a dozen different animations. It's a menu and a way to order food and a method for paying the check all in one. The Presto functions like a better, more responsive version of the touchscreen food ordering system on Virgin America.

With no instructions, I order the two items through the Presto. Beautifully lit photos let me see what I'm going to get. The UI is intuitive. Within 20 seconds, I've sent my order to the kitchen. Before we'd even finished eating, I swiped my card slightly awkwardly into the built-in payment slot, added a tip, and settled up. I would not say that this machine will blow your mind with its technical capabilities, but that's exactly the point: It just works.
"It costs about a dollar a day per table, it can even go lower depending on if you have sponsors involved because all the alcohol companies want to get involved," Suri says. "For that, they get about $6 a day per tablet in increased sales. That's extra desserts, appetizers, drinks. They get about another $5 in extra table turns. If you can fit in one more table per night, that's worth a lot of money....”

I watch as two women a few tables away poke and prod the machine. They seem to be enjoying or at least tolerating the interaction, but then a waiter arrives at their table and they order from him. ...

Margo Will and Lisa Jafferies are affable and willing to talk about their experience with the Presto. They were first-timers with the Presto.

"We started to order through it, even though we're so old," Jafferies laughs. "But then Josh, our waiter came up, and we just talked with him."

"But then we played a game on it," Will says, "And that was fun."

Both women agreed that the main advantage of the Presto was that the digital menu featured photographs and extended descriptions of the food items. They could really know what they were getting. "It's a good way to learn about what the food looks like," Will said. "It's visual."

They did worry, though, about the labor implications of the device: if you don't need waitstaff for taking orders, what do you really need them for? ...

I tried to present a more hopeful scenario. Perhaps the paperwork would get automated and then the servers could concentrate on knowing the food and wine better, solely doing the service and explanation without the hassle of keying in orders. The duo weren't buying it.

"I don't want people losing their jobs because of something like this," Jafferies says. "That's the main thing I think about. The bottom line for the restaurant could be that they don't have to staff as many people per schedule. So what happens to those people?"

…  It is impossible to ignore that this technology threatens a job class, which through its flexibility and unusual hours, has supported many people trying to pull themselves up through school or a creative career.

But the employees that remain, ..., are actually better off. Their data shows that after their tablets are deployed, the staff's per-night tips tend to go up both because servers cover more tables but also because, for whatever reason, people tip better through the machine than they do otherwise.  

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