Chili’s, the national Mexican restaurant chain, has announced that it will be installing 45,000 tablet-style ordering stations nationwide. This gives patrons the ability, so to speak, to order online while seated and not have to interact with waiters.
Why the change, one might ask? According to Chili’s, patrons feel as though they are being “judged” by their servers especially when they order rich desserts and massive helpings. By reducing social interaction, they can now order inhibition-free. At least that is the story from Chili’s, although it is unclear how they arrived at this conclusion.
What is clear, however, is that the new tablets are constantly bombarding the customer with suggestions of what more to eat—of course, without being judged. As Chili’s customers are eating their main course, these digital menus are flashing pop-ups of tempting desserts, which the restaurant claims has resulted in a twenty percent increase in dessert sales.
George Ritzer, professor of sociology from the University of Maryland coined the term “McDonaldization” which he defines as the rationalization of economy. This is the process whereby the principles of efficiency, predictability and calculability dominate business practices. While these are fundamental to a profitable business, they are by no means the only principles involved or the most important.
This modern business model goes way too far. It goes beyond automation in the pursuit of an economic utopia, in which human intervention is removed as much as possible from the production of goods and services. The Industrial Revolution, (1760-1830) promoted a large part of the manufacturing of goods from hand production to machine. While it allowed the production of prodigious amounts of goods inexpensively, quality and variety suffered greatly. The care from personal touch, judgment, craftsmanship and local development was sacrificed for standardized products worldwide.
Chili’s development of digital menus that eliminate servers comes from placing too much emphasis on what computers can do which is easily measurable and too little emphasis on what people can do which is not easily measurable.
Although no one goes out to eat simply for the social interaction with wait staff, servers do make a patron feel at ease, answer questions based on personal experiences, convey their qualities as part of the ambience and put a human element on an otherwise faceless institution by representing the spirit of the establishment they work for. In short, they convey the warmth of hospitality that only a person can express. It is difficult to imagine a Michelin rated restaurant installing tablet-style menus at their tables any time soon and replacing their sommelier. Picture someone ordering a bottle of Dom Perignon White Gold Jeroboam from a digital menu for $40,000 and having a bus boy deliver it to the table.
This new fad most certainly appeals to a generation that has grown up entertained 7/24 by HDTV, smart phones, interactive tablets and video gaming. Such media tends to stunt the development of social skills. These skills normally begin in the intimacy of the family and are further honed in social institutions preparing one to navigate throughout adult life.
Today there is the tendency to shun personal face-to-face interaction when at all possible. Welcome the i-generation. Pump your own gas, use an ATM, go the self-checkout line and now sit in a restaurant with others, text your friends with your smart phone, take selfies to post on Facebook and order without a server.
If fast food patrons suspect they are being judged by what they eat and flashy interactive monitor displays seem to adequately replace social interaction, why not order online and stay home altogether?
This experiment with digital menus is not about being judged by what you eat, it is another step to do away with inequality in society. The role of a server is to serve and digital menus are nothing more than a proclamation: I will not serve nor will I be served. Imagine—a restaurant with no servers and no served; patrons might as well cook their meal too.