Monday, September 1, 2008

Restaurants in the Information Age

The food service industry has some strides to make yet in the Information Age. Right now Dominoes (and probably a few other pizza places) allow you to make delivery orders online, and using that interface you can customize your pizza and make payments. It's not the most intuitive UI in the world, but it's not broken or anything, and it's convenient for the non-phone inclined, or for situations in which it's hard to communicate exactly what you want over the phone. Maybe your English isn't great, or you're mute. Okay, I'm stretching a bit here--and most people would rather deal with a person than a website, but what if this were transposed to other realms?

Say, Burger King.

Set up a station where you can punch in your order, completely customized to your specifics, and pay with a credit card. It prints out a receipt and tells you your order number. This could go a long way towards eliminating the inept cashier problem that plagues so many restaurants who pay their employees $6-an-hour for customer service.

What about larger restaurants? Abby and I went to Olive Garden on Friday and waited out front for 45 minutes to get a table. It's not that we mind waiting, but the fact that we had to wait at the restaurant added opportunity cost to the cost of the meal. What if you could place yourself in line to get a seat from home, or give an approximate time that you planned to eat, and then be told when you should show up. Obviously the system would have some kinks that would need to be worked out, and it relies pretty heavy on the customer, who can be notoriously unreliable.

I remember living in Columbia, Missouri, where none of the restaurants took reservations because the college-age population was pretty bad about not keeping their appointments (or setting up three different reservations and then only keeping the one that suited their particular taste). The key is to provide people with an incentive to show up. Money is a good one.

How about this setup? Make your reservation online and it will cost you $5. When you arrive, you get $6 credited towards the cost of your meal (as an incentive to use the system). If you have to wait more than 10 minutes to get a table, not only are you refunded the $5, but you still get $6 credited towards the cost of the meal. I think people would use a system like that.

The only obstacle is that information-providing is not in the interest of the business. You go to a restaurant expecting to get a table and learn that there's a 40 minute wait, the main thing keeping you there is that you assume that there's a similar wait anywhere else. If you can go online and see that you won't be able to get a table for 40 minutes, you may decide to go somewhere else instead.

But if someone decided to give it a try, I bet it could catch on.



Bill Haworth said...

This was actually the first post I tried to comment on. Turns out, I can read the post, look at and type comments, but cannot post comments from my work computer. *sigh* So here I am, going back thru your journals history... again... and commenting while my trial version of Guild Wars (long story, wait for the attendant post on my journal) is downloading 15,000+ (no, really, that many files to update) updates.

I must not get out to the fancier chain restaurants or only go to the ones that aren't usually crowded, as I rarely have a waiting time. Of course, when I do go to a Chili's or an Olive Garden the last couple of years, it's been with coworkers, and us Army folk like to send a recon element. In other words, about 15 minutes before the rest of us leave, someone goes and starts the waiting process early, or we call ahead. However, I could really see this model working for your major chains, especially the ones that are willing to invest in technology like those flashing, vibrating discs that summon you to the maitre d' station.

As for a more "self service" approach to ordering fast food, I've actually seen that before. We were on family vacation in the '80's up somewhere in Colorado, and an Arby's was trying out a touchscreen ordering system. Now, each screen had its own person behind it to take money, but seeing how well the self service lanes at WalMart (and now Home Depot... how odd was that?) take a variety of payments, I'm not sure that's even necessary nowadays. This would work excellently in Sonics, particularly as I wouldn't have to wait in line, per se. Everyone is in their own line (their car), ordering at their own pace, so fast button pushers (like techno-savvy me) wouldn't have to wait for the slow people (Grandma Bluehair). Each car already has its own menu and card swiper, how hard would it be to change that to an interactive ordering menu? And no need for a bill collector/storage unit, as a carhop still has to bring your food out.

For restaurants with lines, you'd have to have mobile, handheld ordering devices, like those scanners you get at Sam's Club to pre-check-out your purchases - you make your order, and when you get to the front, you plug it into its socket (or hand it over to the person behind the counter for download of order and immediate recycle to the back of the line), the money changes hands (or is inserted into the machine), and your order ticket (complete with order #) is printed. Would save a lot of time over having just a couple of touchscreens built into the front counter.

Only 7500 or so files to go.

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