Pros and Cons of Self-Serve Technology in Restaurants

We are often on our own these days: pumping our own gas, checking ourselves in at the airport, and scanning our own groceries at the supermarket. As technology improves and businesses look to reduce costs or offer more convenience, self-service has become more popular, and is now impacting many industries. Some customers may be happy with the idea, reasoning that things are faster, cheaper, and easier this way. Others might despise it, believing that it is just a business strategy to make more profit.

In foodservice, self-service is not a completely new concept, since buffets and limited-service order-at-the-counter fast food concepts have been around for quite some time. These processes require the extra effort of standing in line to order, collecting, and carrying that would be taken care of in full-service establishments. What is new in recent years, however, is the use of technology to allow customers to take control of even more elements in the foodservice experience, such as ordering on their own or serving themselves alcoholic beverages.

As we explore digital ordering and alcohol self-service, it is important to consider the advantages and disadvantages of these technologies when contemplating increasing the number of self-serve elements within your restaurant to ensure a positive impact rather than a negative one.

Digital Ordering & Payment

Traditionally, customers placed food and beverage orders and paid for their meals by speaking with people. Nowadays, digital technology can handle those tasks without human assistance. Large digital screen kiosks, such as those in many newer McDonald’s restaurants, give customers the choice to order and pay without speaking to anyone. In other establishments, smaller digital tablets are available at each table to order and pay for their meals, removing the need to wait for a server to attend to you. And if you are someone who despises waiting in line, mobile app technology or online ordering enables you to place an order before even entering a restaurant, notify you when it is ready, and give you express pick-up service upon arrival.

These technologies have advantages and disadvantages. They can improve accuracy in the ordering process and offer a better way for customers to visualize customization options. They also provide customers with more choice in their ordering method (digitally or at the counter), and can allow employees to focus on other important tasks such as providing higher food quality, faster preparation times, or better experiences within the seating areas. They can reduce the cost of labor as well, however this is controversial strategy. Cutting back on human jobs in favor of digital technology may be interpreted by customers as negative, so it is important to assess how these types of changes will be perceived. Other concerns are that digital technologies need maintenance, occasionally malfunction, and that some customers may prefer traditional ordering methods.

Self-Serve Alcoholic Beverages

Self-serve soft drink fountains have been around for a while, and newer innovations such as the Pepsi Spire and Coca-Cola Freestyle add excitement to these traditional dispensers by allowing customized selections. Self-serve alcohol is a bit more complicated to execute due to legal implications, but several companies are taking on this challenge. Pour My Beer, for example, offers self-serve technology for alcoholic beverages using a RFID (radio frequency identification) card to measure consumption. Customers can load up their card or ask a staff member to open up a tab linked to their account. This technology is integrated into beer (or wine/cocktail) walls or tables with taps, similar to dispensers that one would see at frozen yogurt establishments such as Menchies. A touchscreen is located over each draught tap with which users can control the number of ounces they pour, showing in real time how much more they have left on their card both in funds and in ounces. A table pass is also available for group outings, and the RFID card uses per ounce pricing so that customers are able to sample different amounts of each beverage.

To ensure responsible consumption, each card is paused after two drinks per person so that staff can assess if they can be served more. CEO of Pour My Beer Josh Goodman explains that the technology is not intended to replace bartenders, but to minimize frustrating wait times and to remove barriers between staff and customers, allowing them the space and time to interact more freely and provide beverage suggestions and information. Tips and taxes are built into the per ounce price. If these strategies are maintained, potential concerns such as irresponsible drinking, loss of tips, and weaker customer-bartender connection will be avoided.

These ordering and dispensing technologies are enabling self-serve to be integrated into new foodservice processes. As always, there are advantages and disadvantages to their use, and careful strategic consideration based on each individual restaurant is required to ensure success.