Technology Streamlines, Depersonalizes Restaurant Service

·Food Editor

Photo credit: Tara Moore / Getty Images

Restaurant chains are turning to tablets to make life easier.

Chili’s, for example, has teamed up with Ziosk to offer “tableside tablets that allow customers to order desserts and alcoholic drinks as well as pay their bills and play games without the help of a waiter,” reports the New York Times. And Ronald M. Shaich, chief executive of Panera Bread, recently spent $42 million on mobile and kiosk ordering technology in an effort to solve inefficiencies such as long lines. “The goal is to eliminate friction points so that customers have a better experience,” Mr. Shaich told the Times.

Is easier better, though, in this case?

Picture this day: You wake up to the sound of your iPhone’s “Slow Rise” ringtone. You listen to the Digi Lady (let’s call her Jan) on your GPS system tell you how to get to your 9am meeting. You hold the meeting, which consists of five people on a conference call, in a room with a speakerphone and you in it. You order your Chicken Cobb with Avocado on your phone and then let Jan direct you to your nearest Panera. Lunch is ready and waiting in a paper bag with the number on it that you received in your confirmation email. You finish lunch a little early—that system was so efficient!—so you take a walk, which really means reading the World Cup scores on your phone as you meander through the Panera parking lot on your way back to the office to finish out the day of staring at your computer screen. Jan finally directs you home.

Sure, Panera’s is a newer, cleaner system. Customers can save their preferences—making future orders a whiz, especially for those particular creatures of habit—and they can avoid the where-is-my-check wait by turning to tableside tablets and swiping their fingertips along the digitally dotted lines. But with fewer and fewer opportunities for face-to-face human interaction—you know, that thing that enriches our lives?—is removing it from restaurants, those environments meant in part to foster social behavior, really better for us?