It's a busy Saturday night, and you go out for dinner at a local restaurant. After a brief wait you are greeted by a friendly employee who seats you and demonstrates the use of a tablet PC for ordering. A minute after your order is placed a runner brings your drinks, while the kids play games on the tablet. Ten minutes later the food arrives. With the touch of a button you order refills and a minute later the kids have their soda. After the family finishes the meal, you use the tablet to look at the bill and pay by swiping a credit card.
Fiction? Maybe, but we believe the waiter-less restaurant is closer than you think. Restaurant operators strive to boost revenue by decreasing dining duration and increasing individual and average check prices, while maintaining customer satisfaction. At the same time, guests are demanding greater value, speed and control over the dining experience.
These trends are colliding to make the waiter-less restaurant feasible. First, user-friendly computers have drastically reduced computer anxiety and spurred technology adoption. Second, the e-commerce revolution is making self-service the preferred way of life for a considerable portion of the population.
In a waiter-less restaurant servers are replaced by a combination of runners and customer-relationship managers. Customers self-serve with a user-friendly ordering device while customer relationship managers greet and seat parties as they arrive and become the point of contact for them throughout their experience.
Using tablet PCs, patrons browse multimedia menus, search for items and drill down for nutritional information, while receiving alerts and specials. Orders are automatically sent to the kitchen and runners promptly assemble and deliver them. Guests self-check-out by swiping their credit card at the table or printing the check to pay elsewhere.
Throughout the dining experience customer-relationship managers visit tables to interact with guests and promptly address any problems. A number of tools can be built in, for example call buttons to request service, games and activities for kids and intelligent algorithms to up-sell items.
With self-service payment, the dining duration can be reduced by eliminating what research has shown to be the least predictable and controllable part of the meal: The payment phase. This also has great potential to improve customer satisfaction by cutting both delays processing payment and minimizing check errors.
Our analysis indicates that a considerable profit upside exists. Eliminating waiters may allow restaurants to boost average check prices when tipping is eliminated. Suggestive selling and better marketing may also contribute to increased average checks.
Right now the waiter-less restaurant is just a vision and there are many issues that need ironing out prior to a successful implementation. In the hands of talented operators, we believe this could be a powerful concept to revolutionize the way restaurants have operated since the first one opened in Paris in 1765.
Alvaro IbaÃ±ez-Donado is a consultant, with Revenue Management Solutions. Gabriele Piccoli is a professor at the School of Hotel Administration, Cornell University.