If you haven’t read it already, check out the article in the Up Front section on page 3 of this issue about a new restaurant in Torrance. It put an iPad on each tabletop. Diners use them to place their orders.
My first reaction: cool. As a customer, you can order the instant you settle on your choice. Later, you can ask for refills without flagging down your waiter. And the owner can cut labor costs and generally operate more quickly and efficiently.
But soon I recalled that old saying about how every problem has a simple and elegant solution that’s absolutely wrong. And now I wonder if a touch-screen ordering system is one of those elegant solutions that’s wrong.
Think about it. For one thing, lots of customers simply prefer to interact with a waiter or waitress as part of the restaurant experience.
But for another, the wait staff is your best source of market intelligence. They know (or should know) if the guy who’s grilling steaks tonight is a new employee. They should be able to tell you if the fish is particularly fresh or if they’ve gotten two complaints this evening about the baked chicken. At a restaurant, especially one that’s new to me, I typically narrow my meal choices to two or three, and I ask the waiter to steer me to the best one. That kind of advice you can’t get from a computer screen.
Now, I must backpedal because there is nuance here. A table-top computer ordering system would be a fine addition to a restaurant as long as it’s merely a supplement. Use it to ask for refills or to summon your waitress. Or even use it to order your meal if you’re a regular at the diner. But a restaurant shouldn’t think of computers as the primary and preferred point of contact with customers.
Commercial banks have gone through a similar learning curve with ATMs. Years ago, banks assumed they could replace most of their tellers with ATMs. Banks that took out too many tellers’ cages had to reverse that move.
Even today, decades after ATMs were introduced, if you walk into any bank branch, chances are you’ll see a line of customers for human tellers while ATMs sit lonely. Little wonder. A good teller can let you know about particularly good rates or quietly suggest you check back next week when the deal may be better. No ATM can beat that.
Unfortunately, table-top computer ordering systems will probably become more common in restaurants as the owners tumble to the fact that they make operations faster and cheaper. But smart restaurateurs will remember that they are in the people business, too, and people prefer to deal with people, not touch screens.
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Speaking of articles in this issue, be sure to read the incredible story of OneWest Bank in Pasadena. In a little more than two years, it went from IndyMac – one of the country’s biggest belly flops – to a spectacular money-making machine. The new OneWest is among the most profitable of all banks and thrifts in the country.
How did that happen? As explained by our banking reporter Richard Clough (a winner of multiple national journalism awards), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. gave the new owners a deal bordering on a steal. No one is saying the new owners have done anything wrong, although the fact that several of them are politically connected billionaires may raise some eyebrows.
Looking back, of course, you can make a list of stupid and, in a couple of cases, suspicious decisions that the federal government made in the panic of late 2008 and into 2009.
And since the FDIC stands to lose $10 billion in the IndyMac-OneWest deal while the new owners crank out billions, we can add that sale to the sad list of bad deals that the federal government made.
Charles Crumpley is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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