Waiters vs. Technology

Does it take a rocket scientist to split the check?
The gossip was flying when Rajat Suri, a promising Ph.D. candidate, withdrew from MIT and began waiting tables at a nearby chain restaurant. Did he flunk out? Had he cracked from the pressure of the rigorous engineering program? His classmates were certain that one of their own would never choose to abandon all those years of scholarship so close to the prestigious terminal degree.

Clearly, his mind was on more than tips.
It’s now two years later, and this week saw the official launch of E la Carte, Suri’s start up that attracted million dollar funding and a board stocked with heavyweights from the technology sector (the founders of Reddit, Gmail, and Dropbox) and the restaurant industry (senior management from Applebee’s and other national chains).

E la Carte supplies partner restaurants with an ordering system utilizing hand held touchscreen tablets. Customers view pictures and read descriptions of menu items, and orders are fully customizable using a checklist or by typing special instructions. A timer counts down each dish’s estimated time of delivery, and the device provides entertainment and social media diversions for the wait—electronic doodles, a coloring book, trivia challenges (solo or for the table), and Facebook updating. An especially welcome feature allows bills to be split in any number of ways and paid for with any number or combination of credit cards (swiped through the integrated card reader) and cash.

The national rollout has begun; first up—Boston and San Francisco.
E la Carte is currently in just a few dozen locations, but with an enormous backlog of orders and a deal pending with an as-yet unnamed major American restaurant chain (looking at the corporate board’s composition, I’d say the smart money’s on Applebee’s).

The company claims that compared with the traditional service model, E la Carte is more efficient, more user-friendly, and even more profitable for restaurants. According to figures based on six months of data from beta testing, the devices increased overall restaurant revenues by 10-12%. Most of the increases came from impulse orders of high-margin items: the screen asks “How about a nice bowl of soup to start?” while you’re looking at a lovely photograph of steamy bisque, and you’ve been told there will be a 20 minute wait for your entrée. Tap-tap and it’s on its way.

Bad news for struggling actors?
E la Carte is not necessarily a waiter-less system. Humans still bring orders to the table and perform customer service functions like seating and beverage refills. And yes, you still leave a tip. With higher tabs from all the up-selling of impulse items, plus the system’s tip calculating function (choose from 15-25%—another easy tap-tap—or write in a custom amount), the servers should do just fine, although restaurants will probably need fewer of them.

As for Rajat Suri, the company he founded currently has 15 employees, most of them engineers with degrees from MIT. And every one of them has a stint of restaurant service on their resumé. Suri requires it.


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2 Responses to Waiters vs. Technology

  1. Pingback: Tablet computers replacing waiters? Now we’re cookin’! « WWWhat?

  2. Pingback: Tablet computers at restaurants? Now we’re cookin’! « WWWhat?

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