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The flaw in ‘frictionless’

Why no amount of tech will ever delete the role of the server.

Please resist the urge to too-quickly agree with me when I tell you, I am not a millennial. So, I understand that I’m not necessarily the target demographic of the recent movement in the restaurant industry toward frictionless service.

What’s that, you say? It’s the hospitality model—better yet, phenomenon—by which every step of the foodservice transaction is designed to be fast, seamless and essentially free of human contact. (If you’re not familiar, I implore you to read our story for a primer.)

All the cool kids are doing it—at least on some level. And by cool kids, I don’t just mean those ultramodern, robot-run concepts from overseas. It’s not even limited to trendsetting fast casuals. Frictionless service, as we’ve discussed frequently on the pages of Restaurant Business and on our website, can be found in every segment and every kind of operation, from casual-dining chains outfitted with tabletop tablets such as Applebee’s and Chili’s to high-end wine bars stocked with customer-facing, self-pour dispensers.

As a consumer, and more specifically as a busy working mom, I don’t dislike the idea of being able to order food ahead, run in, grab it and be on my way without pesky time-sucks like pulling out my wallet or waiting for some server to spot my name among the to-go bags behind the counter after asking me twice how to spell it. I’ve tweeted before about my love of Panera’s Rapid Pickup counter and have become a regular user of GrubHub on busy days at the office. In both instances, I place my order and pay from my computer. Then I either pick it up or get delivery without ever speaking to a person.

But I’ve also found that the system is not without its hiccups, even if some of them are more a matter of perception than practice:

For example, I would be what most consider a heavy user of Starbucks’ mobile app. My regular routine includes a pit stop at the drive-thru where I pay for my daily vanilla soy latte via smartphone before zooming off. I don’t even stop to tip—that also happens via app, but later on at a stoplight down the road. When preordering rolls out nationwide by year’s end, the transaction should be even speedier. But I do miss the relationships I formed with the baristas at the Starbucks I used to frequent on foot when I worked in the city. It was downstairs in our office tower; the baristas greeted me by name and put in my regular order as soon as they saw me come through the revolving door. The service was quick enough, but the interactions—the opposite of frictionless—are what I valued most.

And apparently, I’m not alone. At the Restaurant Leadership Conference hosted by Restaurant Business’ parent company CSP Business Media in March, several speakers noted that, although everyone is talking about frictionless models, servers—and the value they bring to the guest experience—will likely never fully go away. The data just doesn’t support it, at least not yet. And while servers’ roles almost surely will evolve as technology streamlines the transaction—they already have, as we note in our cover story—the engagement and education they bring to the guest experience is too powerful to ever do without.

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