I eat out a lot. (Usually at other people’s expense, I admit.) So how restaurants work is something I think about often. How might they innovate more? How might they do things differently?
It’s a multifaceted discussion. Yes, people go to restaurants to eat food, but beyond this rather obvious statement, they visit for a variety of other reasons, and come with rather different expectations. The food itself, while my primary interest, is not the primary interest of all guests. And factors beyond the flavour and appearance of the food affect the enjoyment of that food in quite profound ways.
I think high-end and mid-market restaurants could learn something from mass market restaurants. High-end restaurants may offer a range of different styles of food, but the actual experience is remarkably uniform, with all the same components. Is this because it’s what their customers want, or is there room for innovation?
One of the bits I dislike about the restaurant experience is getting the bill, and I’m not talking about the financial pain, more the process involved, especially when it’s a busy service. Psychologically, when you ask for the bill, you want to leave. But you have to wait for it, and then when you’ve got it you have to wait for the staff to return to collect the payment. It’s often a frustrating end to a meal. There must be a better way.
Tipping is ridiculous, too. Yes, it’s great to be able to reward good performance. But at a high-end joint you expect good performance as the norm. Does the fact that a tip is at stake actually improve the service? Not really, because only mean, cheap people leave less than 10% (in the US 15% is the baseline, and you’d only leave less if your server spat in your food, while you were watching). These days, a lot of places add 12.5% to the bill as a matter of routine. This further penalizes wine lovers who usually spend a lot more on the wine than the food, and opening an expensive bottle and pouring it pretty much takes the same effort and resources as opening a cheap one. Tipping has its origins in a different age and should no longer have a place in the modern world.
So, back to my theme: what can high-end restaurants learn from cheap ones? I’ve just been forced to eat at a fast food chain (I’m so embarrassed, but it was actually OK) because that’s the only food option past passport control at Barcelona airport. It has the usual staffed order points, but it also has ‘easy order’ touch screens, where you can examine the menu in more depth before you order, and customize it, even if your lack of Spanish would make this tricky at the staffed tills. The great thing from the restaurant’s point of view is that it offers an opportunity to up-sell that you’d never get face to face without seeming rudely pushy.
Translate this to a high-end setting. The guest arrives and is seated at a bar (or table) with an iPad menu. As well as the food and drink menu, fully illustrated, it includes video content of each dish. The chef introduces it, demonstrates how it is prepared, and the sommelier suggests some wine pairings. Each wine is available in 75 ml, 125 ml, 250 ml by the glass options, making wine and food matching a reality rather than just a fantasy. You order, and are given the option of paying with the credit card you used to reserve your booking (which would vastly reduce no-shows!), thus eliminating the annoying bill stage (if, of course you find it annoying). The iPad menu would also offer the opportunity for the restaurant to up-sell, suggesting sensible extras, or drinks, and making the ordering process for additional items painless. Technologically this would be complicated, but it could make service more scalable and less staff intensive, saving costs. It might sound a naïve suggestion to a restaurateur, who would take this as evidence of how little I know about restaurant service, but that’s looking at the situation through the lens of how things are done now.
Another low brow restaurant experience left an impression on me. It was ages ago, at the Epcot centre in Florida, where the various parts of the park are arranged by national theme. There was a restaurant in a South American (Mexican?) themed area that was in an indoor space that was styled to resemble an outside area on a clear, starry night. The food was, as you’d expect, pretty terrible, but the experience was great. Can restaurants do more to mould the experience of diners. Perhaps in not such an obviously faux manner as Disney’s Epcot, but modifying the environment to engage all the senses. What about experiential pods that change the sounds and lighting according to the food being consumed. The rhythm of courses could be reflected in a progression of different environments. A particularly experimental restaurant could even borrow from theme park static ride experience: fasten your seatbelt between courses as you journey through different landscapes. It would make the experience a memorable one.
Of course, there are many great, wonderful restaurants doing things the time-honoured way, and I love them. There are many restaurants whose menu is extremely innovative, too. But could there be room for restaurants taking innovation a step further, and changing the experience itself?