Waiters Will Be Replaced by Apps

WASHINGTON, DC-March 27: Chef and owner Frederik de Pue cooks at the open kitchen and chef's table above the market at Menu MBK Restaurant in Washington, DC. (Photo by Scott Suchman/For the Washington Post)
Chefs prepare food at The Test Kitchen, at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock outside Cape Town, South Africa. Photo: Scott Suchman/For the Washington Post

It's always dangerous to look to Florida — where headlines like "Senior Citizens Flock to Strip Club Offering Free Flu Shots" are the norm — for a glimpse of anything resembling forward-thinking progress, but here it is. At Walt Disney World, the Beauty and the Beast–themed Be Our Guest restaurant ("THE hot spot for dinner in Disney World," per Yelp) offers one of the most high-tech sales systems of any restaurant in the world. Instead of waiting to be served by a waiter, customers can order their food online — up to 30 days before their actual reservation. When they do get to the restaurant, the park's radio-enabled wristbands automatically alert staff members and indicate which table a group ends up choosing. French onion soup and vegetable quiche just arrive — and the customers don't interact with any kind of traditional "waiter."

This model — in which waiters are replaced by a combination of apps and other staff people — is on the verge of being adopted by well-regarded restaurants in the real world, too. The technology that makes all this possible isn't far from what's already in everyone's smartphones, and chefs and owners in high-end restaurants are already rethinking the role of the single person who takes customers' orders, delivers food, and checks in from time to time. You don't have to be a Disney Imagineer to predict a future in which waiters have all but disappeared from the food industry.

In fact, many similar advances don't require any technology, at all. Among restaurants where dinner can costs hundreds of dollars per person and everyone refers to "chef" in hushed tones, the most obvious move away from waiters is taking place at tasting-counter restaurants. Though they do employ some traditional front-of-house staff members, these spots have more in common with sushi culture than anything from the era of nouvelle cuisine: Diners sit at bars that are basically appendages to a central kitchen, often sitting face-to-face with the people cooking and serving their food. These restaurants tend to offer set menus, too, so there's no actual ordering, aside from maybe asking customers about allergies. Momofuku Ko is the most cited example of the model, but there are plenty of others: Luksus or Blanca in Brooklyn, the Catbird Seat in Nashville, minibar in Washington, D.C. — and as diners embrace the style of dining, that list will probably only grow further.

Chefs prepare food at The Test Kitchen, at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock outside Cape Town, South Africa. Photo: Per-Anders Pettersson/Corbis

Even in restaurants that still have proper dining rooms, cooks are slowly taking over roles traditionally reserved for front-of-the-house staff — delivering food and engaging directly with customers. The practice was pioneered at Noma in Copenhagen but is now commonplace at spots like Eleven Madison Park in New York or Chicago's Alinea. As Daniel Boulud told Grub Street back in 2013, "Basically this concept is turning cooks into waiters."

Boulud is actually a critic of the practice, but restaurant owners do have at least one good reason to want to blur the long-established line dividing dining room and kitchen tasks: wage disparity among the staff. Pok Pok owner Andy Ricker describes it this way:

It is not uncommon in our sector of the industry for front-of-house staff to go home at the end of a busy shift with several hundreds of dollars in tips, which (absurdly) may not be shared with the back of the house. The cooks, dishwashers, and all back-of-house staff contribute as much to the diners' experience as the front-of-house workers, and yet may not share in the gratuity that is based on the entire experience.

The wage for an average line cook in this city is between two to three times more than the hourly credited wage of a server, but about a third (total) of what a waiter can make in a shift. The cook works seven to nine hours, and the server works four to six hours. When you decide to become a cook, as I did 35 years ago, that is something that is understood — but it does not make it fair.

Tangled laws — and a history of litigation for tip misappropriation against New York's highest-profile restaurants — prevent owners from simply creating tip pools where everyone gets a piece. Instead, they have to rethink how their service staff is broken down.

Grant van Gameren, Enoteca Sociale's new executive chef serves the diners with NYC food writer Mark Bittman . Sitting with Mark are The Stop's Nick Saul (left) and Real Foods for Real Kids Lulu Cohen-Farnell (right) February 6, 2012 Photo: David Cooper/Toronto Star

But it's quick-service restaurants, specifically Chipotle and Shake Shack, that have done the most to show that elements of fine dining can be combined with a fast-food model and that people will line up for that experience — literally out the door. And in the future, high-end restaurants could push that combination of speed, service, and quality even further. When David Chang opened up about where he sees his Momofuku restaurants going, he sounded most impressed by a Taco Bell app, which allows customers to — you guessed it — order food remotely and arrive when it's ready. At SXSW, Chang said, "I would love that for Momofuku two years from now. You walk in, no line, sit down, and I have what you want, boom, it’s right there."

Of course, that sounds very similar to what's happening in Orlando at the Beauty and the Beast place, and when a restaurant owner as prescient as David Chang is on the same page as Walt Disney World, it's a good bet that this idea is going to be a widespread practice sooner rather than later. Granted, waiters will probably never be eliminated outright. But it's also not hard to imagine a time when an actual person taking your order and delivering your food will be like a handwritten menu: A purposefully anachronistic touch that's mostly just meant to evoke the charm of an earlier time.