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Have It Your Way! Will Technology Replace "Service" in Fast Food and Casual Dining?
By John Hendrie

T he word "Service" appears in quotation marks, because, as we know, this may be a misnomer for certain segments of the Restaurant Industry, particularly fast food and much of casual dining.

Who's kidding whom? In the broader spectrum, we no longer book our flight/pick up tickets at the airline ticket counter, much less through a Travel Agent - we engage a kiosk. Some Hotels are employing the same technique - why stand in line to speak with an indifferent, frazzled or surly Front Desk Clerk, when you can check your own self in and out? Even some grocery chains have been experimenting with self-check aisles. With bar codes, no problem! Even Take-out Windows can route our order through Des Moines.

We watch Gen X'ers, Y's, and whatever generation comes next multi-task, as they go through an average day, tapping into cell phones, Blackberrys, IPOD's, laptops, and Game Boys. Physical contact, a kind word, even a smile has little currency for many. They have neither the time nor the interest.

Technology may be a boon for many, but it is a bust for relationship building, and we can watch as "service" in the fast food and casual dining business further slides, because, in the grand scale of things and the Consumer evolution, it probably should and will. And, particularly chain companies, which dominate these two segments, no doubt have been at their drawing boards planning this transition. Numerous trends are quite apparent.

Firstly, labor. What type of employee will they draw for minimum, if that, wage? With all due respect, with minimum wage and not even full shifts you get minimum talent, effort, motivation and result. You can only mechanize the training and service requirements so much.

Next, the product. Forget preparation and craft. Let me follow those directions - pop here, pull there, flip, drain, nuke, sprinkle, now wrap and voila! Want fries with that order?

Thirdly, the Consumer. We have been "dumbed down" pretty well, and our expectations are no longer lofty, more likely, threadbare. We are thrilled with an accurate order, tepid fare, and the opportunity to buss our own table. We're malleable and trainable! And, we love technology and control.

And, last. The Service aspect. In the kitchens of yore, we had the Expeditor, who moved the orders, the dishes, and, in some cases, the garnish. Now, we have a preparer (Micro at full or half power), an arranger (Let's see - a shake, a burger, and slaw on the tray) and an announcer (Order 42). They are all expediency oriented. We have taken care of the order taking and the pick-up and the bussing of our table much of the time. Let me swish my credit card through the machine or let's use that prepaid Dining Chit, which I can buy anywhere, much like those Phone Cards. As the doors are push or automatic, we do not even hear a "thank you for your business". Retro to the days of the Automat, and Service opportunity further eroded!

So, Food Service, let me design and order my own meal by myself. Perhaps, I will e-mail to you. Early on, you would FAX me menus, now, you are on-line. Maybe, I shall sit at that plastic table, and place a voice order on my cell or to that fancy new "squawk box", where the juke box of thirty years ago sat. "Please be advised that our menu has changed, and we will monitor calls for quality and training purposes". And, Management, we shall clean off the tables, too, although you may have to wipe down the surface once or twice.

It is coming. In discussions with noted Food and Beverage Consultant, Mark Ladisky of of Ladisky Management Hospitality Consulting, he opined that the Consumer is more and more moving towards creating their own experience, plus they are wired. The technology is available, the labor pool is contracting, and the product is readily fabricated.

You do not have to be a wizard to see the signs. For corporate America and their short term thinking and squandering investment in Service and Training for enhanced Stockholder value, further automation is absolutely on the march. Whereas, the independent operations can really differentiate, should they opt. It is a choice, but remember, "I want it my way, right now", and you must adapt to the marketplace!


John Hendrie The author believes that Remarkable Hospitality is the portal to the Memorable Experience. Seek solutions at: www.hospitalityperformance.com




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