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Ironically, the biggest disrupter of all for the food service industry has proven to be viral (quite literally) and not technological — something our columnist could not have foreseen only a year ago when this piece was filed — Editor 

People claiming to know a lot about big important things often like to wax rhapsodic about ‘Disruptive Tech’ and the impact it has had on various industries. Uber has upended the taxi business; Airbnb has hotels on their heels, and so on, but there is at least one industry for which big tech has not yet managed to flip the script. Restaurants have proven to be remarkably resilient to the incursion of technology.

Maybe it’s the messy, unforgiving environment of the professional kitchen that spells death for delicate electronic devices. Maybe it’s that paper and carbon have done a pretty good job for the last 80 years. Thus far, tech has basically only nibbled at the edges of an industry that resists change in the same way a rhinoceros doesn’t like to be poked with sticks. We’ve got Square, thank you, and some web-based management tools that live safely on a laptop or back in the office, but chaos, inertia and dysfunction still reign.

With this in mind, I’ve tried to brainstorm a few approaches by which tech can finally penetrate this market by providing us with things that we actually need.

(Originally published in the Summer 2019 issue of Food & Dining)
 

Tracker Jackers for AWOL Cooks

In “The Hunger Games,” genetically engineered wasps called “Tracker Jackers” zeroed in on their targets, mercilessly injecting a hallucinogenic venom capable of causing madness or even death. Building on this concept, entomological bio-hackers can create a new super-breed of vespids that can receive employee payroll data from an ADP downlink and hunt down cooks and other disreputable sorts who happen to oversleep their shift by 17 hours — again!

Using a proprietary stimulant as their venom, these creatures can inject enough CCs to awaken even the most somnambulant line guy. A plus: employees waive their right to sue when they opt in by signing the payroll packet. A minus: some employees might come to like this course of action and seek to hijack Tracker Jackers for recreational use.

Asses-n-Seatz – Providing Jobs in the Gig Economy

A few years back, I profiled the inimitable Ella Brennan — a legend in the New Orleans restaurant scene —  for an industry award. When I asked her about the look of the renovated dining rooms of Commander’s Palace post-Katrina, she told me that her favorite restaurant décor was “asses in seats.” I’ve never forgotten this.

And now I find myself operating a new establishment which has been, shall we say, slow to catch on. Of course, it has a prominent corner location with huge plate glass windows where everyone can look in and see that there is nobody there. We all know that people like to be where other people are and that people shy away from an empty restaurant, so I am fretting about this.

What is the solution? A modeling agency buyout? A poorly conceived flash mob? Load up a truckload of those guys that hang out in front of the Home Depot looking for gigs?

How about the Asses-n-Seatz app? It’s a new micro-employment tool that can summon a cadre of unemployed actors looking to earn a few bucks. Just pick the number of man-bun coiffed unemployed bartenders and bespectacled Etsy doily Bedazzlers you need, and they will descend upon your establishment at a pre-arranged time to make it look busy and culturally relevant. Some of them might even work just for the irony.

HotLinez

These days everything is for sale. You can get a B-list celebrity to send your best friend a personalized birthday greeting at the touch of a button from sites like Cameo. You can buy valuable exposure from influencers to direct their social firehose at whatever enterprise you represent a la Viral Nation. So, what about a mash-up of the two directed at the hospitality industry?

Introducing HotLinez, a service matching media-seeking restaurateurs with unscrupulous chefs looking to parlay their diminishing stature for enough filthy lucre to enable their Kratom habit for another ten days. This one has a heavy-duty paywall so not everyone can see how this sausage gets made, but basically you select a chef from a pull-down menu and enter an opinion you’d like him to have; if he accepts, he blasts it across all his social handles. It works for you; it works for them. It works for the unregulated nutritional herbal supplements market. Everyone wins.

POS with Benefits

One area in which tech has visibly infiltrated restaurant operations is tablet-based Point of Sale systems. No doubt you’ve seen Square, Toast, Shopkeep and their ilk running on swivel-stand mounted iPads on countertops everywhere. For most casual operators, they represent a vast improvement over their predecessors: clunky dinosaurs with graphic interfaces straight out of 1983. These new systems can generate real-time reports, manage marketing outreach and a whole lot more, but there are a lot of things they can’t do.

To put it delicately, they can’t do those little things that restaurants do to get by, like under-reporting sales to avoid paying taxes and sending reports to a separate, more private QuickBooks company for personal use. Not that I do these things, of course… I’m just saying some people do.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Their cameras could be used to scan dining rooms to identify food critics with facial recognition scans. Credit card info could be cross-indexed with Google to learn about which diners are the best targets for free glasses of wine. You know: the creepy stuff. The good news is that lots of these POS apps allow for third-party integrations, so developers looking to capitalize on an unserved niche can start coding today. Chances are they will have to sell through the Android marketplace rather than Apple’s App Store.

But until these things hit the market, we’ll just have to get by the same way we always have — with cooked books and unreported cash. Did I say that? I’m sorry, but really… this whole business is a mess anyway. The truth is the wine guys are potheads. The line cooks are drunks. The beer guys do yoga, and the carefully-groomed waiters are opportunistic hyenas. None of it makes any sense. Disrupt it, please. The sooner the better! F&D