This evening I went out for food in a recently reinvented sushi restaurant on South Congress. I asked the host about some of the design decisions as while he brought me to a seat. “It’s really much better for everyone involved,” he explained as I slid my chair under the table, “the servers, the customers, and the kitchen all have less work to do and we all like it better.” “Wow,” I thought to myself, “what an interesting metric for a job as dull as serving tables already is.” In my experience other places, waitressing had mostly been hours filled of scavenger hunts for something to do, the jackpot of discovering the sugar packets needed to be refilled could fight off the beast of desperate existence-questioning boredom for at least ten more minutes of the shift. I pressed the server to explain himself, “Now we just do work when it’s needed. See? If a customer wants their server, they just press the ‘Server’ button right here. It’s just more natural.” He points to the screen of the iPad on my table, the same as the one on every table in the restaurant.
This restaurant used to be called “Zen;” a quiet, take-out oriented, sushi-fusion, low-cost establishment on the medium-high end of the lowbrow food scale. It was not an ambitious place. Customers ordered at a register, the same person who they ordered from set their food on the counter when it was ready while hollering out their name, and that same person wiped off tables occasionally. Half the food was pre-made and all of it came in take-out containers for convenience. Though the business has not changed hands, it appears the owner has had a change of heart. Now renamed “Lucky Robot,” the atmosphere is at once upgraded by the large liquor bar and futuristic hanging lighting fixtures; Asian-urbanized by the rice-maker-as-Godzilla mural that wallpapers a majority of the restaurant, and of course, the iPads. If the names of the incarnations of the restaurant can be taken as literally as I think they can, then the Lucky Robot signifies a new era in the ecology of dining in Austin. As if to illustrate this, the host just described the process of ordering for oneself, including paying, from an iPad at the restaurant table as “more natural.”
In his essay “Design in the Age of Biology: Shifting from a mechanical-object ethos to an organic-systems ethos,” Hugh Dubberly argues, “Where once we described computers as mechanical minds, increasingly we describe computer networks with more biological terms.” The impact of this phenomenon is perhaps unparalleled in modern society. We have moved well beyond anthropomorphizing our technology to take care of tasks that humans used to, and even those are still shocking to upon first discovery. Remember the first time you saw Pay at the Pump? It wasn’t that long ago, but not only is it no longer novel, it’s assumed. Gas stations without it are now throwbacks to a slower era and the inconvenience of being forced to walk inside the (“convenience”) store and interact with a person behind the counter is reflective of a value system that is being trained out of us by using anthropomorphic technology.
Lucky Robot is taking advantage of the improved experience of online ordering and placing it inside their restaurant. They’ve managed to maintain employing an extremely small staff while now giving the impression of table service. And so I wonder about the future of dining out. Will this catch on like Pay at the Pump? Will it become an option, like the self-checkout aisle? Will we start seeing it at drive-thru’s?
Why not? Why shouldn’t the customers take their own orders? After all, what is more natural than using your own hands to find your dinner?