Touchscreen Dining: Out of Touch?

Have you seen this contraption? It’s a 7 inch tall interactive, touchscreen restaurant menu tablet from E La Carte.

And it might very well be part of your dining future.

My feelings toward it are mixed, at best.

I am historically resistant to technological change. I quietly mourned the compact disc’s triumph over the long playing record; I didn’t see the necessity of a laptop computer when my desktop one worked perfectly fine; I was forcibly enrolled in Twitter by a friend; and the only reason I purchased a cell phone was because I would not be able to find my boyfriend in a crowd of 20,000 people 500 miles from home without one.

And yet I have come to embrace all of these technologies. In fact, I am physically embracing my computer as I type this on top of my lap. With my phone in my pocket. Playing downloaded music. The Twitter feed, however, is turned off. I have my limits.

I have the feeling that ordering from a touchscreen menu is one of those limits.

It isn’t as though I haven’t done it before. Anyone who has taken a Virgin Airlines flight has seen these screens. We pull up the food menu, place our index fingers to the screen to make our choices, then swipe our credit cards along the bottom of the tablet. Shortly thereafter, a flight attendant appears with what we have ordered.  It isn’t exactly magic, but it is certainly efficient.

However,  I do to miss being asked the question “Chicken or fish?” I may get my cold falafel sandwich quickly, but I never feel very good about it. There’s a subtle but important different between being handed a tray of food and being served it.

The people at E La Carte state that their menu tablet isn’t meant to replace those who serve. Rather, it is “meant to make the hospitality experience more convenient, social, and fun for the guests and more profitable for the restaurant operator.”

With the tablet, guests can “order, pay, play games, and give feedback straight from their seats.”

According to the product’s makers, there are three main benefits for the restaurant:

1. Boost average check size by up to 10% through up-selling, pictures, and impulse orders.

2. Improving customer retention with easy-to-use loyalty and survey interactions.

3. Improve service by quick payment, retaining customer order history, and games at the table.

How on earth can a computer up-sell better than a human being? I think I need this explained to me.

When my friend Roy alerted me to this new piece of technology, my first reaction as both a career server at a fine dining establishment and someone resistant to new technology was to view the E La Carte tablet as vilely impersonal and a threat to my profession. Over the last 24 hours, however, I have calmed myself as I weigh what I imagine the cons– and the pros– this particular piece of equipment.

There are three important components a good restaurant must supply in order to provide its guests with a great dining experience (just pick up a Zagat guide and look at their rating criteria if you don’t believe me:

1. Great food

2. Congenial décor

3. Excellent service

Though the menu tablet aims to provide photos of all the menu items, I am wondering if its creators have taken into account the fact that someone is going to have to style, photograph, photo edit, and upload a photo every time a new dish is created.

Substitutions? E La Carte states that guests can make alterations to their chosen menu item through this product. Simple enough when a guest might prefer mashed potatoes to french fries with their Porterhouse, but what about more complex– or outrageous– requests? Is it time then for a server to appear at the table with the bad news?

Computer says no.

As for décor, I get irritated when the people I eat with leave their smart phones on the table, so I’m not going to want a 7 inch piece of electronics shining at me as I dine. A candle on the table and the smiles of my companions are all the glow I need, thank you very much.

And what about the human component of the dining experience that this gadget swears it is not intended to replace? As a server, one of the most important parts of my job is to form a personal connection with my guest. Argue all you like, but there is a certain amount of server/guest bonding that happens within the first few moments of interaction. When I say hello and ask someone if they’d like a drink or if they just want to settle in a moment and catch their breath, I’m not just offering to go fetch them something– I’m giving them the sense that they are going to be well taken care of.

The nuances of human vs. computer interaction are too many to get into in this post.

I understand that both restaurant owners and restaurant guests can benefit from such a menu in cases where one is looking merely to satisfy one’s hunger quickly and efficiently, like at a corporate chain restaurant such as Applebee’s (which is rumored to be adopting the tablets). Such venues already have standardized menu items that are photographically illustrated.

Touchscreen menus might also be a terrific boon for people who, for varying reasons, are unable to communicate well with spoken words. I’ve seen what an iPad can do for kids with autism. Could such interactive menus also help them gain confidence in ordering dinner? It’s an idea that intrigues me.

They may also be helpful to those unfamiliar with a particular cuisine and/or language (ever been to a Vietnamese restaurant and felt entirely helpless?). The idea of a computer with a built in glossary of terms and ingredients (or a translator) is an intriguing one.

And just think about how it could transform a wine list. 86’ed items could be immediately removed from the menu. Can’t remember what grapes are in that Grüner Veltliner (hint: it’s Grüner Veltliner, but you would be spared the humiliation of asking such a question of you could simply click over to a glossary or related link)? Of course, the draw back is that one could get so lost in so much information, that one might never be able to choose. Or put the damned menu down.

I think a tool such as the E La Carta has some excellent possibilities, but not in the way it’s being marketed. In addition to the ideas previously mentioned, I think that such a product used as a menu would cut down on the need for paper menus that must be thrown away or otherwise recycled every time they are either dirtied or in need of updating.

But then you should give your order to a human being and remove the electronic device from the dinner table.  Talk to him. Ask for her opinion. Just interact. Technology can be a wonderful thing, but not at the expense of interpersonal exchange. It has its time and its place.

The other day I was riding to work on the bus. When I had taken my seat,  I reflexively pulled out my iPhone to play a game of cribbage or stare at Facebook updates or do something– anything– to shut out my surroundings. Then something wonderful happened:

My battery died.

I was alarmed by how helpless I felt and my immediate thought was “Now what am I supposed to do?” And then I felt like a fool. I looked at my fellow passengers on the bus. Every person on it my age or younger was using their smart phone. None of them were smiling. It was just the old Chinese ladies at the front who were chatting and laughing away. I had no idea what they were saying, but they seemed to be doing perfectly fine without a touchscreen at arm’s length.

It struck me then that this is precisely what we’re all doing when we can’t manage to pull our eyes away from our gadgets– we are keeping people at arm’s length. And that personal computers aren’t, well, personable.

We spend so much of our time in front of computers– I know I do. Working as a waiter is a marvelous antidote to technology because every night I am forced to talk to people I’ve never met before. I ask them questions like “How are you?” and “Where are you from?” Granted, I get paid to do so, but it’s something I actually look forward to. It pulls me out of myself and, for a few hours every evening, my focus is on the welfare of other people.

And I look for the same thing when I am the one who is dining. I want to feel welcomed as a guest, not merely a customer. However much of a fantasy that might be at times, I want to believe it. I want to thank the person who placed that martini in front of me. I want to talk to a human being, not press buttons (unless they happen to the the emotional buttons of my dining partner). I want to feel as though I am being taken care of.

I just don’t happen to think that’s possible with a computer.

What are your thoughts? Like the idea? Hate it? If you’re one of those people who only comment because you can’t stand waiters, you will be cheerfully ignored. Or, if you’re extra offensive, deleted.

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About Michael Procopio

I write about food and am very fond of Edward Gorey. And gin.
This entry was posted in Rants and Stories and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Touchscreen Dining: Out of Touch?

  1. Mariel says:

    I agree with you on the possibilities it would bring and the possibilities it would end, but I think my stance is slightly more favorable to the use of this artifact in restaurants (than yours, that is).

    If this service really is constructed in such way that you can only tap and tap, without being able to make special requests, inquiries, etc., then it will be successfully substituting only the waiters who are more like automatons (we know they exist). I like to think, though, that enough thought will be put into them to suit them to less straightforward communication.

    I think the most interesting question in this regard is: in fine dining experiences, could this gadget live up to the standard set by waiters already? I think it could in an environment that were suited for this sort of ‘digital’ experience. I’m obviously not thinking a French restaurant with vintage decorations would be the ideal candidate for this system, but I’m sure some wealthy ‘contemporary’ restaurateur could edify an experience that relied on a gadget of this type, and that didn’t leave clients wishing for more.

    I guess this is based on a view of online/offline communication that I have: much of what people type into gadgets is communication, just as talking with an elderly woman in the store is. It’s a question of priorities – and I don’t think the online/offlineness of it ever is the priority for me. What is said, who says it, is.

    Thanks for bringing this technodiscussion into a food blog. Food for the Thoughtless indeed 🙂

    • Mariel,

      Holy smokes, that was quite a comment! I’m intrigued by what you refer to as “online/offline” communication. I much prefer my communications offline. Of course, the great thing about online communication is that one can do it in one’s underwear and no one else would be the wiser.

      That is one of the greatest advantages of technology.

  2. Tracy says:

    i’m the chick that goes into a restaurant and drives the wait staff crazy by asking them to ask the chef what he’s proudest of at the moment and have them bring that to me. it’s been good. it’s been bad. it’s been scary. it’s been expensive, but it’s never once been boring. i think a computer would be the latter. large…

    • What if the chef reported back to you that he was proudest of his children? Would you then consider eating them?This is important information I must know.

      That said, I sometimes ask my server to “surprise me”. I’m rarely surprised, but I enjoy the experience of it, just the same.

  3. Jay Floyd says:

    Isn’t there an assumption (premise?) behind all communications tech that we really don’t want to engage with actual people very often?

    More precisely, isn’t it kind of true?

    • There are certainly times in my life when I don’t wish engage with others, but when I do, I happen to prefer talking to a human being rather than a computer. I’d make for a lousy computer hacker, but I am really good at manipulating people. You can understand my preferences.

  4. Brooke says:

    You bring up so many great points here. I do like the idea of guests using the iMenu device (mind if I rename it?) to ask the questions they are afraid to ask, or the obvious ones we must smile our way through. I think you’re right, as a society, all of this technology is helping us head towards a life of disconnection from our fellows. An iMenu would remove the waiter from the equation and, though it might streamline some issues, I think the missing human would eventually be missed once the uniqueness of the experience wore off.

    1) Without a waiter, the guest would have no one but themselves to blame for a bad order.
    2) without a waiter, the guest would have to make a decision on their own (without expert advise). Legions of ladies who say they like fish but really only like salmon filets will be shocked at “how bad the fish is” when they order something a waiter would instinctually know they shouldn’t order.
    3)the good news is maybe the removal of a waiter will require the hiring of a writer. Someone has to describe the dishes!
    Great topic!

    • You may rename anything you like. Except yours truly, of course.

      I love that bit of psychology ypu so wisely pointed out– “without the waiter, the guest would have no one but themselves to blame for a bad order.”

      And we could all use more writing gigs, right? I think you might be on to something.


  5. Anita says:

    I can totally see this at one of those big chain restaurants with huge menus… think BJ’s or TGIFridays. It wouldn’t detract from that sort of restaurant ambiance at all. But that’s about the level of dining place where it belongs… it would seem very tacky to me in a nicer place.

    • These types of venues are precisely where I can see them being used. It would be glorious to order an Awesome Blossom and two Mudslides without having to say a word. THe less said about them, the better..

  6. Roy says:

    There are elements of this that I find attractive, and elements that I find absolutely absolutely vile. It has surveys that you can fill out to kill time until food arrives? It lets you play games while waiting for your food? no.

    If you are dining with people, be social. If you are dining alone, enjoy a book or bring your own game system.

    However a variation on this that is a tool for the server/wait staff, may be very interesting. Sometimes I go to a restaurant and I know exactly what I want, sometimes I look at the menu and I am intrigued but have no idea of what it is the restaurant is describing. A device that the server can bring with him/her to the table and upon describing the dish then say, “and let me show you a picture of what it is we are talking about.” That could be kind of cool. A device that the server can have with them that can automatically read a credit card set upon it, could make everyone’s life easier. Especially if the table is also connected. The customer instantly takes the card back, the server can go pick up the bill which has been run automatically and applied to the correct table since the tablet knew what table the server was at.

    The problem is when the thought is, how do we use technology to replace what we have.” Which is what this tablet seems to do, instead of asking “how can we use technology to enhance the experience and connections that brings people together.” And in this instance the sharing of food.

    • If I could find a computer that did all the chewing for me, I would be very much for it. I’d also like to have a special app that scans barstools and singles out the person who is most likely to buy me a drink. Apart from these great money making ideas, I’d prefer to leave computers outr of my food-sharing experiences.

  7. stephanie says:

    My understanding is that this technology was meant for Ozzy Osbourne.

    • Oh dear. Believe me, there are a lot of other folk out there who need all the help they can get. I’d love to be able to record myself reciting the specials, then I could place place the pad on the table and have the video play on an infinite loop. This would be especially helpful on Saturday evenings, when I have to repeat myself 3 to 4 f***ing times.

  8. Susan says:

    I think that waiters are an important part of the dining
    experience particularly in restaurants that are trying to
    create a specific ambiance. I think that a good waiter should
    intuitively understand the customer – something a computer
    could never be able to accomplish.

  9. This is the culinary equivalent to the iRobot Roomba. On first thought the concept looks promising but in practice it won’t really play out. Will it work? Sort of. Is it as good as ‘the real thing’? No. Is it good for all environments? No. Will you have to make lots of changes to the ‘landscape’? Yes. Will you like what you have after you’ve made them? Not really. Will the novelty be enough to sell a ton of them? Yes, definitely. Will it ultimately be satisfying? No. Will the batteries run out? Yes.

    On Friday my godparents were visiting so I took them out to Season’s 52. (I mention the name only because you know the area and may know it as the local ‘newish’ hotspot.) We decided we would all order wine by the glass. When my godfather’s selection was no longer being offered the just-barely-legal waiter, eager to please, brought him a tasting of an alternate. My godfather had ordered a cab. The waiter brought a pinot. After telling the young (and hot) waiter that this wasn’t what he had in mind when he chose the initial selection the waiter gave my godfather a short lecture on the character of a cabernet and why the pinot might be better. Oh, my godfather is an award-winning California vintner. Far from being annoyed, we all chuckled agreed that we LOVE these moments about dining out. Interaction with the server, whether it gets you expert advice or just simple conversation, is part of the interest of the evening. Maybe I’m weird in that I can even be entertained within reason by bad service. I wouldn’t trade the interaction for anything. Even at an Applebees. (Whatever that is.)

    • “The culinary equivalent to the iRobot Roomba.” I find that statement to be remarkably accurate. I treasure both really good and bad service. The good makes me feel all warm inside, while the bad gives me something to talk about. Either way, I find it a winning situation.

  10. I completely agree with you and empathize with your bus story. I am actually starting to wonder if I’m – gasp – addicted to technology. I have a hard time not checking my smart phone every few minutes – for FB, Twitter, Emails, etc. Still, I remain strict regarding use at meals (never) and while playing with my daughter (only when she’s not looking). Just kidding about the daughter part. 😉

  11. Sasa says:

    I was *just* thinking “compu’a says nooooh” as I was reading and you posted it. You’re awesome. I can’t think of anything worse than ordering on a computer, if I wanted to do that I’d order take aways.

  12. penandra says:

    My first thought on reading your post was disappointment that technology has now intruded into my dining experience. As I was reading, I tried to visualize what it would be like to use La Carte at a chain restaurant (ala Applebees, Chevys, Chilis, etc).

    I can see where some folks, who cannot be without their smartphone and instant access, may welcome the La Carte technology and not see it as an intrusion on their dining experience. However, these are the same people that I see out to dinner in a group where all at the table (or, worse yet, all BUT ONE) are engrossed in their phone — I’m not sure what they are all doing and often suppose that they are texting each other rather than having a verbal conversation.

    Or perhaps these are the folks that are sharing gossip with someone on the other end of the line, and are completely oblivious that they are also sharing it with everyone within earshot (including, in one case, the daughter of the woman being discussed in less than glowing terms).

    I have five friends with whom I have dinner nearly every Friday night . . . sometimes all six of us, sometimes not. We frequently invite others to join us, but often we are the core group of six. We try different restaurants in the area, some ethnic, some not, some more expensive than others.

    It seems to be an unwritten/unspoken rule that whatever we are doing with cell phones/smart phones before we arrive, they do not come out at the dinner table. We enjoy chatting with each other and interacting with our server, it is part of the experience and part of what keeps us getting together week after week.

    I do not see La Carte adding to my dining experience. But then, because of the types of restaurants I frequent, I don’t see it being a possibility either. With the slim profit margin in the food business, I don’t see this being something that would be a “need” — and am I ever glad about that!

    Thanks for the (yet again!) thought provoking article.

  13. Alanna says:

    As a photography student many years ago, I was appalled to learn of the existence of digital photography. I loved the crazy smell of the darkroom, and developing my own pictures, and feared that digital photography would remove all the sensuality of photography. Now that I regularly use a digital camera, of course, I couldn’t live (re: blog) without it. Can you imagine the time it would take to use a film camera, develop the photos, scan them in, for every post? I’m way too impatient for that. And there would be no contrast-enhancing, or exposure control. In short: my photos would suck.

    That isn’t to say that a touchscreen menu will be anywhere near as useful as digital photography, merely that we luddites are sometimes surprised, and our minds consequently changed, by technology that previously disgusted us. I do agree with the tackiness of the touch screen. But if you’re “dining” at a place like Denny’s, well then, you’re not really one to judge tackiness, now, are you? (But as my mom likes to say, “You’re entitled to your own opinion – even if it’s wrong.”)

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  14. Greg says:

    This is not new !
    I googled it and found that for the last few years Conceptic the leading and pioneer company (according to Google order) in the field of touch screen menus – emenus had done hundreds of installations !! meaning we can love it or not but this is becoming a part of the restaurants and it is only a manner of time before we will see it in very restaurant !
    Check this out:

    What is new in this industry is that now they are also offering ipads menus called ipad e emenu check:

    I prefer the eMenu upon the Ipad Menus

  15. Blythe says:

    Loved your piece . As a kindergarten teacher, I’m dismayed by those who tell me that the teaching of handwriting is no longer necessary as children will now be developing their fine motor skills on a computer. To me , it’s just not the same thing. And I get extremely cranky when asked to check my own groceries, or become trapped in a computer generated loop of voicemail options.

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