I have no doubt that this is an argument I’m going to lose in the end.
Yes, technology is toeing its way into the restaurant world. Tableside credit card transactions. Awesome. iPad wine lists. Nifty. Reservations, loyalty programs and pre-arrival information. Goes without saying. The array of applications within a fairly clunky, old school industry are many (Nation’s Restaurant News created an interesting infographic around just that in 2012).
Ron Shaich, the Founder/Chairman/CEO of Panera Bread, points out in this recent article on the topic: “Improvements in technology have made real the ability for restaurants to provide a more customized and personal experience for guests, creating an opportunity set, I believe, on par with the market opportunities we saw decades earlier to offer better food and warmer “gathering place” environments.”
But when you get beyond Chili’s and Applebee’s and Paneras, have you ever wondered why the upscale casual and fine dining restaurant marketplace overall has been so slow to adapt? I have two theories.
One: This is a damned tough business and it’s hard enough just trying to be successful (i.e., profitable) without needing to innovate in ways that have nothing to do with your core service of producing incredible food–to say nothing of training a staff that turns over monthly, managing shocking rises in food costs, and fighting to keep your patrons from migrating to the 20 new eateries that opened in your neighborhood in the last year.
Two: The dining experience is extremely personal. Sure, people share their experiences digitally, but they don’t experience them that way. Everything great about dining in a sit-down restaurant (that distinction is very important here) is rooted in a personal, TACTILE experience–the progression of tastes and smells, the staff that helps to curate your experience, and the elements of the environment around you. For me, even just the process of reading a menu for the first time (on paper…like I like my books) with a glass of wine in my hand is as important a part of the experience as eating.
I’m totally guilty of the occasional snatched food photo, but I typically put my phone away when I enter a restaurant. I’m there so I can do something OTHER than check my emails or see if some’s “liked” my check-in. That’s not why I’m there. I’m there to enjoy the reason why these guys are in business. The food. And, other than whatever high-tech gadgets the chef might be employing that night, I feel comfortable in saying that the technology the blogs and trades are talking about building into the diner’s experience isn’t going to make it taste any better.