Do We Even Need Waiters Anymore?

Chip Klose argues that technology can, and should, replace the majority of Front of House as the industry moves forward. (Leeroy Agency / Pixabay)

Let’s take a second and talk about the geography of a restaurant. The guest is seated in the dining room, the chef is back in the kitchen, and for a long time there was only one reliable way for the two parties to communicate. In the beginning — more than two centuries ago — some enterprising, young restaurateur recognized that an intermediary was required to help facilitate the transaction. After all, how else was the chef supposed to know what to prepare? Likewise, if the chef was busy cooking, how was the food going to get served to the table? Waiters were born out of necessity and have been an integral part of restaurants ever since. And yet, I can’t help but wonder… do we need them anymore?

Our guests now carry devices in their pockets that can provide a streamlined mode of communication between the dining room and the kitchen. Why then, would an operator pay someone to do what those pocket computers can do for free? Over the past decade quick service concepts like McDonald’s and Shake Shack have discovered that kiosks help cut payroll (no need to have all those people standing at the register taking orders), increase monetary spend (the data is clear that kiosks can help drive as much as 15-20% more revenue per transaction), and improve the guest experience (shorter lines and faster service mean happier customers). With the arrival of QR codes and table ordering, the same sort of revolution will soon transform full-service restaurants.

Read more: How Contactless Systems Create a More Personalized Guest Experience

As operators, shouldn’t we be excited about this? We now have the technology to build a more profitable restaurant that can also provide a superior guest experience. This past year has devastated our industry, and it’s obvious that we can’t go back to the way things were. Thousands of establishments have shuddered and millions of workers are still out of work. Chefs and operators have had to pivot in ways they couldn’t have imagined prior to 2020, and yet the old adage still holds true: in every crisis there is opportunity. The challenge we now face is to look past the destruction to find the silver lining. For me, that means the opportunity to rethink operations. Specifically, front-of-house operations.

Inefficiencies Abound

A waiter’s job is wildly inefficient. Half their night is spent either copying down someone’s order (five minutes, let’s say), or huddled over the terminal in the corner punching that order in (another five minutes at least depending on allergies and modifications). If each server has a four-table station and does two turns a night, that’s nearly an hour and a half of completing tasks that could be handled more efficiently by a computer.

Plus, consider how many times you’ve scoured the dining room looking for your server simply to order another cocktail. Unable to locate them, you flag down the only person you see: the busboy. “Can I get another drink,” you ask. To which they respond, “I’ll go get your waiter.” A few minutes later the waiter emerges from the service station, takes your order, and returns to the terminal to send that order to the bartender. If there had been a QR code on the table — or a tabletop ordering device — you could already be enjoying that drink by now.

If we have new solutions to solve these longstanding problems, why don’t we utilize them? Can we break free and challenge ourselves to rethink what service might feel like without waiters? Can’t we imagine a better way?

What Do We Mean by 'Better'?

Let me take this opportunity to say that obviously there are some restaurants that will still need waiters. In some near future, I believe a waiter will signify a level of service and attention often equated to luxury brands and fine dining establishments. They will be a key piece to the service being provided at those restaurants, and we will appreciate their presence. I just don’t think we’ll need waiters at every restaurant. If you’re resistant to this line of thinking, I want you to try to separate service from hospitality. Consider: is it possible to create a hospitable environment even if we’re not providing the same level of service we once did? For many restaurants the only way to be more hospitable is to do away with waiters altogether. How do you keep a guest from getting frustrated about a disappearing server? You give them a tool to order a drink for themselves. It’s better for the guest, and therefore better for the business.

Read more: Bottoms-up Beer Dispensing Systems - Are They Worth It?

And again, I don’t want to get rid of all waiters. I just want to utilize them better. I want to let the machines do the grunt work (like ordering) so the waiters can focus on the things that only people can do… like greeting tables, answering questions, telling stories, and anticipating the guest’s needs. Instead of ten servers on the floor, why not run with five? Since they won’t be stuck taking orders all night and ringing them in, they’ll be free to take larger stations. They can then be more present in their section, providing the kind of service most people have never experienced before.

Best of all, it passes an important litmus test. This one move will help cut expenses (less staff means lower payroll), drive revenue (servers will now have the time to upsell and focus on second beverage sales), and provide a better guest experience (more attention is better for all of our patrons). True, it won’t be right for all establishments, but for thousands of restaurants out there I think this may hold the key to a brighter, more profitable business model.

Chip Klose is based in NYC, where he runs the marketing agency Chip Klose Creative, working with chefs and restaurant owners to help them grow their brand presence and increase revenues. Klose is also the host of a weekly marketing podcast, Restaurant Strategy, where he talks about many of the strategies and tactics he uses day-to-day in marketing restaurants. To learn more, visit ChipKlose.com.

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