Count me as one of those people who rolled their eyes at the story that Fat City's Jonathan Bender reported yesterday about technology -- a multifunctional touch-screen device in this case -- replacing servers in restaurants.
The post struck a chord with several professional servers in town, including waiter/blogger (and soon-to-be book author) David Hayden, who thinks the concept of replacing the personal relationship between server and customer with costly touch-screen computers (and the necessary software and training) is simply not going to happen.
"Part of the successful dining experience," Hayden says, "is the personal interaction between server and guest. It's been an integral component of the restaurant experience for centuries. Technology can't replace that."
I've been around long enough to remember when a different kind of
"technology" was going to take the place of waiters and waitresses. This
was back in the 1970s, and the technological marvel that was going to
make personal service obsolete? The telephone.
Sound crazy? Let's
flash back to a long-defunct chain of thoroughly modern restaurants
called King's Food Host.
If you can't remember this state-of-the-art restaurant concept, don't worry: I can barely recall it myself, and I dined in one of them in my hometown several times with my parents, who detested the restaurant. It was a concept designed for children, not adults.
The novelty was that after perusing a menu, which looked very much like a Denny's menu -- with color photographs, if memory serves me -- patrons actually ordered the food from a telephone on the table. The phone line went directly to a disembodied voice in the kitchen. The food wasn't very good. The kitchen was notorious about getting orders wrong -- bad connections, maybe? And the Indianapolis restaurant vanished in the early 1970s, about the same time that the Nebraska-based restaurant chain had hit seriously hard times.
King's Food Host had 100 corporate-owned restaurants and 36 franchises in the United States in 1971. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1974 and wasn't even a player in the chain-restaurant business by the end of the decade. If the idea of using telephones to replace servers -- most of the restaurants still had humans delivering the food -- was a cost-saving concept, it didn't make this chain profitable in the long run.
Now the idea of using phones in restaurants and bars wasn't exactly an earth-shaking idea. Remember the "Telephone Song" from Cabaret? (Apropos of this: At the same time that customers were lifting a handset and ordering burgers and fries at King's Food Host in Indianapolis, there was, on the other side of town, a gay bar with phones on each table for customers to order alcoholic beverages and to talk to each other. It bombed, too, but not before it was affectionately dubbed Queen's Food Host.)
Today, at this very moment, in Kansas City, two iconic local restaurants -- aimed at the pre-pubescent market -- are still using telephones for taking orders: the two Fritz's Railroad Restaurants. Orders are placed by phone, and the sandwiches are delivered by an automated "Skat Kat" train-delivery system. Servers still deliver the beverages to the table.
Not much personal interaction, but the technology is still a marvel.