Business

Fish and microchips: The future restaurant is here

Robot waiters in China Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Restaurant of the future? Although robot waiters probably aren't going mainstream anytime soon, technology is fundamentally changing the way restaurants work

In the future, our restaurant tables will be computerised. We will summon more wine at the flick of a button, watch our morsels' preparation through a ChefCam, then speed into the night unhindered by waiting for our bill.

At London's Inamo Restaurant in Soho, the future began six years ago.

Co-founders Noel Hunwick and Daniel Potter had been friends at Oxford and fellow students in Magdalen College.

Says Mr Hunwick, "We were reconnecting at a restaurant and thought we really wanted to spend some money, and buy some beer."

The waiter was sluggish, and the friends' thirst led them to devise broad contours of an 'E-Table'.

Now the E-Table is patented technology, and the mainstay of the Soho restaurant and a second eatery in St James's.

"So it has its foundation in wanting another beer, but so do the best ideas, really," he says.

Match.com lists Inamo in the top places for first dates in London.

You can tweak the lighting, joust at Battleship, and when your meal is over, you can pay quickly, without waiting for a waiter.

In a timeframe of 30 seconds instead of five minutes, says Mr Hunwick.

Good if you don't like your date that much.

Image copyright Inamo
Image caption Diners at Inamo

Dinner is servered

"If you look at restaurants in ancient Rome, they're not that different from restaurants today," says Rajat Suri, founder of Silicon Valley-based E la Carte.

Mr Suri left a doctoral programme at MIT to work tables at an Irish pub in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

He ended up cooking up a touchscreen restaurant tablet, the Presto, which the American chain Applebee's has signed a deal to deploy across its 1,800 restaurants.

After dining one evening with seven MIT engineers, his group had difficulty splitting the bill.

"Sort of a bad joke", admits Mr Suri.

Image copyright E la carte
Image caption The Presto tablet, with a card swipe slot visible at the top

And restaurants are conservative, he came to realise.

"Software and technology have been inundating all parts of our lives - our homes, cars, and flights - but restaurants really have been passed by."

This means, for an engineer, a host of inefficiencies and lost information in decisions and transactions.

All in a sector known for thin margins, which perhaps can use all the help it can get.

"The restaurant space is not an early adopter of tech", agrees John Regal of Ziosk, a Texas-based company whose tabletop tablet has recently been adopted by US chains Chili's and Red Robin.

Across the Atlantic, dining tech has moved past the innovator and early adopter stages, and into the "early majority" phase, says Mr Regal.

Diners now come already accustomed to mobile devices and tablets.

And restaurants form part of a "race to the fifth screen" in users' lives, after their television, computer, mobile, and tablet.

This screen is likely to be communal, in places like airports and retail stores, and will feature apps you wouldn't download, but in a dressing room would be useful in the moment, predicts Mr Regal.

1,500 restaurants now use the Ziosk, and a roughly comparable number Presto.

Image copyright Ziosk
Image caption The Ziosk tablet

Haute-tech

Alongside tabletop tech, what Inamo's Mr Hunwick calls queue-busting technology are being experimented with, such as tablets restaurants could hand to waiting customers to allow them to make a start on ordering.

And with portable credit card scanners still a rarity across the Atlantic, much of the lure of dining tablets for American customers comes from the possibility - new, there - of paying at the table.

But it is still a small sector. Most in it describe restaurants as a slow sell, initially.

"An overnight success that has been over seven years in the making," is how Mr Regal describes Ziosk.

This challenge was magnified from a need to combine the perspectives of a technologist with those of a restaurant manager, adds Mr Hunwick, "a bustling environment with seven glasses, chopsticks, and food on each table."

Technically, the hardest obstacle for Inamo was allowing two people to use a mouse at the same time on a computer, something its lead software developer Bernard Sumption calls "pretty surely a world first".

Image copyright Inamo
Image caption Customers can play games, order food and drinks

Inamo combines ceiling projectors with a table interface. Ziosk and Presto use tablet technology. And in Ukraine, Dmytro Kostyk and his Interactive Restaurant Technologies developed a touch-screen table with a sturdy enough glass top to bear the punishment of a restaurant.

Each has had time to tinker, to incorporate gestures borrowed from tablets, and to play with different menu trees. For example, the first five items listed get ordered fifty per cent more, says Mr Hunwick.

But their moment seems to have come. E la Carte attracted $13.5m (£9.1m, €12.5m) in Series B funding from Intel Capital and Romulus Capital.

Ziosk says it has signed contracts and commitments to double its restaurant footprint to 3,000 by year's end. Imano is looking to expand next year, and has been developing technology to shift tables and projectors around more freely.

"It was kind of magical. After years of writing code, I pressed the button to bring me more wine, and it just turned up," says Imano's Mr Sumption, about when he finally dined in their restaurant.

Image copyright Interactive restaurant technology
Image caption Interactive Restaurant Technology's table allows you to watch the kitchen while your food is being prepared

E-voila

Early responses suggest the challenge might now lie less in the technology than its implementation.

Last month Gaurav Tiwari, from UK financial technology company Zapp, visited two restaurants of a burger chain which had recently acquired queue-busting tablets, to find in both stores the devices were uncharged and unused.

One manager in agreed to charge one to allow Mr Tiwari to use it, which took ten minutes.

Sean Williams, a contributor to personal finance website The Motley Fool, visited an Applebee's restaurant that had recently adopted the Presto tablet.

He was struck by how much time waiters were taking to explain the device to customers, and that initial drink orders (including non-alcoholic ones) still needed to be placed with a waiter.

But most online reviews of Inamo focus, in the end, on the food.

"After a bit of time playing battleships and not talking to your date," says Mr Sumption, "it becomes a very normal restaurant after a while."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Fish fingers: We can all be grateful that this unsettlingly real robotic hand is unlikely to form part of the restaurant of the future - outside Japan at least

But what about waiters?

According to Mr Suri - who was one - an "unexpected delight" has been their reactions.

In the US, saving a waiter two trips to process a credit card increases table turnover - and tips.

Making the system easy to learn for casual staff has been an important lesson, says Mr Hunwick.

In the US, innovative restaurant tech has so far been concentrated at the burger-and-chips end of the market.

Mr Suri thinks this will change.

"I think high cuisine still prides itself on being fully manual, and having lot of attention."

"I think over time, they'll rely more and more on some sort of tech," he says, "especially for things like wine education, which guests might want to browse at their own leisure."

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