Despite significant breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, technology has yet to supplant the presence of waiters in restaurants. Implementing a technological alternative would make service more efficient. Waiters are prone to mistakes. They show up late for work, they bungle orders, they give attitude to guests, they spend fifteen minutes in the bathroom checking their Instagram when they have a full section. An automated hospitality solution would mitigate the shortcomings of a mortal staff and, in theory, improve the guest experience.
But there’s one significant reason why waiters have endured: A human touch, even a fallible one, puts people at ease. Technology can’t do that. Even though it might create efficiencies in the dining room, you won’t be seeing any android servers or touchscreens tablets embedded in your table any time soon because even the most skilled computer programmer can’t code charm, patience and resourcefulness.
Technology makes restaurant experiences less intimate. This is why digitized menus have failed to gain traction. They save printing costs and are better for the environment, but they make perusing a menu less joyful. Guests continue to show a proclivity for the analog charms of a physical menu and a warm-blooded server. The best restaurants are disciplined in their approach to cultivating the connection the staff has with guests because they know it’s critical to their success. We don’t earn customer loyalty because we ordered people’s food correctly every time; it comes from making them feel at home, even when something goes wrong.
Right now, it’s difficult to predict how the service industry will administer hospitality when shelter-in-place orders are lifted. Insisting that waitstaff wear masks is a forgone conclusion and obviously the prudent thing to do, but protective gear will make even the most attentive service feel clinical. Masking waiters incapacitates their personalities—negating the most fundamental conduit for great service, the smile—and makes it infinitely more challenging to facilitate comfort.
A Hillstone restaurant in Dallas drew harsh criticism recently when it was revealed that management was prohibiting the staff from wearing protective masks. According to an employee who spoke to CBS news, “management didn’t think that face masks complemented the restaurant’s style or level of hospitality.” It was obviously a wrong-minded decision on their part, but the controversy sheds light on one of the challenges the industry faces when it reopens. The allure of restaurants has always been rooted in the euphoria of leaving the outside world behind. The constant presence of mummified servers, swaddled anonymously in PPE, brings the outside world in. Restaurants lose their majesty when they break the fourth wall.
Federal and state governments have been indecisive about how best to move forward as the pandemic threat subsides. The CDC laid out unofficial guidelines for restaurants, offering a tentative framework on how to approach reopening. Many of the recommendations make sense for some restaurants yet are impractical for others. It’s difficult to fathom people paying hundreds of dollars to enjoy a Chef’s ten-course tasting menu served on paper plates with disposable plastic silverware.
The industry faces the daunting task of crafting guest experiences that revolve around their safety while maintaining their hedonistic integrity. It’s unlikely to feel like pampering when we greet guests at the door by taking their temperature and insisting on their wearing masks in the dining room. Management used to bristle about enforcing dress codes out of fear that someone might take offense. Now we have to assume responsibility for policing our guests’ sanitation practices at a time when everyone is already on edge. Friction will be unavoidable.
Of course, most diners will be compliant with these new protocols, but the question becomes how will restaurants protect their staff and their guests while also creating an environment that makes everyone feel comfortable? It will require some reconfiguration of our physical spaces. One restaurant owner in Ohio installed clear plastic shower curtains overhead that hang in between tables as a protective measure.
With dining rooms filled well below capacity, the onus will be on the staff to manufacture energy to make up the deficit. The Inn at Little Washington in the DC area raised eyebrows when it announced that it would be filling empty tables with antique mannequins to make the restaurant feel busier. Servers on the floor are even encouraged to interact with them and pour them wine. It’s safe to say that most restaurateurs will not be resorting to filling their empty seats with artificial guests, but creative solutions for maintaining a restaurant’s vitality will be imperative.
Welcoming guests back into our dining rooms may also require some drastic reimagining of how we administer hospitality. We’ll need to find ways of being attentive while also being less intrusive. Guest interaction will be abbreviated. Reciting specials, once a temptation, will become a nuisance. There likely won’t be any verbal additions to the menu until the masks come off. Hand sanitizer and sanitary wipes will become as ubiquitous on tabletops as salt shakers and pepper mills.
To distract from the sterility, many restaurateurs are already designing custom face masks meant to blend in with the staff’s uniforms. Chefs will prune their menus to the simplify the ordering process and streamline kitchen operations to fulfill takeout and delivery orders without disrupting the flow of service. Guests may even be invited to pre-order their meals to further limit interaction with the staff once they’ve been seated.
Hands-off service will be the new normal. Once iconic, Instagram-friendly tableside flourishes will be furloughed. “Frenching” shared plates as a courtesy to help diners divide dishes more gracefully will be forbidden, too. Staff may even allow guests to pour their own wine—something that would be considered sacrilege before the pandemic. Aside from serving and clearing, we’ll do everything we can to minimize contact. Restaurant kitchens will look more like medical labs. The sanitation protocols that will likely be implemented in the aftermath of COVID-19 will most make the dreaded Health Department inspections of yore seem like cakewalks.
Our dining habits will have to change, too. It’s likely that when restaurants reopen we won’t be able to count on them as much for luxuriating. Initially, normalizing our dining rituals may be driven more by a primal need to socialize or to nourish ourselves. When people lament about missing restaurants right now, they’re grieving less for the inspiring cuisine than for the absence of a shared, convivial space.
The expectation to be pampered may be superseded by the acceptance of a more rote form of hospitality. It may feel more like the care you receive in a doctor’s office. You go there for diagnosis and treatment not for an uplifting, soul-affirming epiphany, and you won’t leave disappointed if your doctor doesn’t ask if you enjoyed everything.