Too Much Technology: Tableside

I was at the Olive Garden today and I saw the latest incursion of technology into daily life.

Image stolen from

Each table is outfitted with a tablet on which the patrons can browse the menu, order items off-the-cuff, request drink refills, even pay the check — without the need for a server to visit the table.

And I thought, wow, that’s cool, for about five seconds, before I realized, wait, that’s actually kind of messed up.

It isn’t hard to see what’s cool about it. And the server I asked about it was quick to sell me on the fancy features of it, all the neat and nifty things the customer can use it to do. Got kids whom you want to get a plate of food in front of, like, immediately when you sit down? Use this tablet for that. Had a rough day at work, and need a refill on your glass of wine right this instant? You can place the order yourself without waiting for the server to place it, then wait on the bartender, then run it to you. Movie’s about to start, and you need to pay your ticket right now if you hope to make it in time for the previews? Swipe your card right at the table.

Convenience! Ease of use! Instant response!

But. (There’s always a but, isn’t there?)

I quickly realized that I feel about this pretty much the same way I feel about self-checkout lines at the grocery store. Which is to say that the restaurant is now forcing me to do some of the work that I take as a given will be done for me as part of the social contract of visiting a place of business that, I thought, was in the business of serving the customer.

What I mean is, I have a job. I go to work for eight hours every weekday (and often eight hours is just the beginning) to earn my paycheck so that I can buy for my family the things we need. You know: roofs over our heads, clothes on our backs and shoes on our feets, little toys with a hundred detachable bits for me to step on in my bare feet at five in the morning when I sneak downstairs for a run. When we have a little left over, we like to splurge by going out to dinner.

And a not-at-all-insignificant part of the going out to dinner experience is the fact that we do it precisely to get a break from the reality wherein my wife and I have to do everything. Who’s cooking the meal? We are. Who’s filling the sippy cups and rushing to the sink to rinse off the toddler spoon that fell on the carpet and is now sporting a hunk of cat fur and carpet schmutz? We are. Who’s cleaning up the table afterward, doing the dishes, and in short doing everything that makes living unlike a band of complete savages possible? We are. We go out to eat to avoid all that.

And now this tablet. It pretends to be there for our convenience, but it’s not. Okay, maybe it kind of is … many are the times I can recall sitting at the table for minutes (entire minutes!) on end, waiting for the server to come round again for any one of the services outlined above. (Come to think of it, I think we get avoided more now that we have kids, but maybe that’s a post for another time.) But I have a sneaking suspicion that while this tablet pretends to serve the customer, it’s really to serve the restaurant, in that it cuts out the middle man. It eliminates a link in a chain, and any time you can shorten a chain, sheer probability dictates that you have less likelihood of encountering a weak link in that chain. And the weak link in this chain is … the server!

Far be it from me to say that servers are by definition weak links. I did my time waiting tables in many a restaurant, as did my wife. It’s a difficult job. Thankless. Much more complicated than a lot of people give credit for. Believe me, I have respect for the good servers out there (and we tip accordingly … none of that “your reward is waiting in heaven!” crap from my pocket). That said, there are some really garbage servers out there, and they can ruin the experience for the customer … and a customer who has had his experience ruined is likely to take it out on the restaurant vis-a-vis not coming to the restaurant anymore. So: install a tablet to take the place of a server descending on your table like a hummingbird every couple of minutes (or, maybe more like a migrant goose, every couple of months). Drinks are low? Need to pay and skedaddle? You don’t have to wait on another person to handle these things for you; just push a few buttons. In fact, with the tablet, you could really eliminate dedicated servers altogether and just staff the front of house with food runners and busboys (or busgirls, it’s the 21st century after all, although busgirls doesn’t sound quite right). I could sit down, tap up my drinks order, tap up my appetizer, and even tap up my entree (complete with preparation instructions that I now know will definitely make it to the kitchen — so when they serve me my chicken with fargoing mushrooms on it I’ll know it was the kitchen that screwed up and not my server). Why bring another person into the mix?

Monkey, Buttler, Operation, Waiter, Control

Because, as I said before, we go out to dinner so that we don’t have to do it all. I go out to dinner so that I can have a stranger kiss my butt a little, serve me with a smile, come around and fill up my water five or six times. I want them to do these things for me so that I don’t have to do these things myself. And yeah, this tablet means just pushing a few buttons to get these things done, but sharknado, if I wanted to push buttons and have it happen that way, I’d order online and bring the food home to eat. I like the interaction with a person. I like getting to boss somebody around for a little bit. And I will gladly pay for this service in the form of the gratuity we add on to the check at meal’s end.

Of course, as I said earlier, I don’t think this service is about me, the customer, at all; I think it’s much more to the benefit of the restaurant. No longer will I be able to complain: “well, I didn’t order that.” If I put the order in myself, then yes, I bloody well did order that. No longer will I be able to leave angry reviews on Yelp that we had to wait fifteen minutes for the server to collect and process our check: if I have the option to pay right there at the table, then it’s my fault I sat there like a dunce with my card in my hand and my elbow in a puddle of orange Crush that my toddler expelled through her nose. The tablet protects the restaurant from all these complaints you could theoretically level against a server, and it gives the customer more control over their dining experience.

Thing is, though?

I don’t think I actually want that much control over my dining experience. I want it to be good, but I want it to be good because it’s orchestrated by people that care enough about other people to make it good.

I dunno, man. The robot revolution is not that far enough. I know this is a road we’re going down sooner or later. Maybe I’m turning into a curmudgeon. But this feels like yet another thing we’re removing the human element from when, maybe, it ain’t quite time to cut people out of the picture just yet.

Am I wrong? Is this the wave of the future, or does this unsettle you a little bit?