The Rise of Smartphones in our Dining Experience

26 September 2020

August 2019

In August 2019, I was visiting my friend, Sharad Mirani, in Amsterdam. We had a breakfast cafe nearby - Bagels and Beans. We were their guests almost every morning. If you get a chance, do drop by. We highly recommend it. This is a franchise, and I am referring to the one on Parnassusweg.

They had some sort of a machine where waiters would record orders. It was nothing complex. It looked a bit like an old phone. Large, black, has a number pad, has an LCD screen. A number indicates a specific order. But by modern standards, the UX was definitely non-trivial. There was one particular waitress who faced quite some challenge with this. Suppose we had to take one item off our order. In that case, she’d struggle with it and eventually end up cancelling the whole order and retaking the order without this item. Why don’t we make this a smartphone app? Through a decade or more of mobile app design, we’ve figured ways to make them simple enough for even the most technologically challenged population among us. Why are we forcing people to struggle with an archaic piece of technology? We can take this a bit further and try to help everyone instead of just the waitress. Why don’t we just get apps ourselves? We could order without any help from the waiting staff. Why is this not already commonplace? This is not a long stretch of imagination. What are our theories?

At some places, you want the experience of talking to an executive, figuring out what fits your mood, having elaborate options into a dish. But only a few expensive dine outs have this expectation to match. For most of it, we’ve already gotten used to delivery. We are pretty good at compressing our conversations and options into an app already.

It is a bad, rude thing to fire some of your waiting staff. But you could slowly reduce the staff. Don’t fire the current one, simply don’t rehire.

Or, inertia. Is it just a lack of will to take risks when this is not your first priority. Even if it has a low cost to implement, quality of life improvements are harder to prioritise. Personally, I would stretch this to say that people are lazy. Inertia is just a fancy word for it. Okay, maybe these improvements are subjective “improvements”. Some people might like the human interaction at restaurants. But whatever, not my counterargument to make.

Anyway, a couple of days went by. Then, I saw the owner of the cafe taking interviews for new waiting staff. I was informed that he comes to the cafe quite often to do these interviews. Now, maybe I could talk to him into hiring me for making an app for them. I would be able to open a startup and move to Amsterdam. What an idea! This never came to happen, but at some later point, I did seriously consider the idea of making it a weekend gig for myself back in Bengaluru. I could make apps for restaurants which they could use as an ordering system. Automate the waiting staff partially. Most of the back-end would be reusable with only the front-end varying with each restaurant. Sounds like a good side business for me.

This is not very different from existing apps where you order food or literally anything. I believe the only challenge is confirming that a customer placing the order for a table is physically there. I could order food for table 33 when I have not yet arrived. I could be delayed or cancel my plans, and the restaurant would not be able to occupy customers who are physically present, waiting for a table. Places which make a reservation are fine, but many don’t. Now, at one of the places where I’ve tried this app-based ordering system - someone comes to your table to confirm your order. It’s simple. But maybe you can do better, e.g. restrict the website to the restaurant wifi.

It was amazing how quickly I forgot about all of this. Life moved on, and this became another passing thought.

September 2020, One Year Later

We are in a pandemic! I am in Bengaluru. For a long time, restaurants were closed for dine-in. When they opened, they opened with some restrictions. Each alternate table has to be empty. All customers need to sanitise their hands at entry and undergo a temperature check. Masks are mandatory till you’re seated. I wanted to experience this. Frankly, it was akin to an amusement park visit for me. So I did.

The tables had a QR code to scan which takes you to a website where you can order. The QR code solves the problem of being physically present at the table. They are managing reservations traditionally. To be honest, I did not immediately realise the significance of this. I was simply exhilarated (and slightly disappointed) to see my idea from a year ago in action. It took maybe a month more when I noticed this is now standard practice. Nobody wants the menu cards to transmit the virus. It is a simple safety measure. But this will last forever, I don’t see why we’re going back. The conditions of a pandemic have given the activation energy for this change.

Once again, adversity has necessitated invention.