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The week’s 5 head-spinning moments: Servers under siege

Servers should be spared a dress-down for moping through the past week. It’s tough to smile when the best part of your job is being steadily strangled.

Fortunately for the business, few waiters, waitresses and counter servers likely noticed the new methods restaurants are testing to minimize server-customer interaction. If those pilot projects yield the expected results, servers would function as food haulers, not stewards of the guest experience.

Consider, for instance, the latest effort to avoid having a human ask another human tableside, “What would you like tonight?”

BJ’s Restaurants tries order-ahead dine-in service. The high-flying casual chain acknowledged this week that its order ahead system is too radical for consumers to grasp without considerable education. “When we say ‘order ahead,’ most people are thinking, ‘Oh yes, I can do that for take-out and curbside service,’" CEO Greg Trojan explained to investors. So “we've started calling it order ahead dine-in for that reason.”

If customers realized they could order a meal from home, then drive to the restaurant to eat it, they could cut their time at the table to “35, 36 minutes comfortably and not feel rushed,” said Trojan. And that would counter fast casual’s speed-of-service advantage, he stressed.

Another aspect of the set-up enables guests to pay at the table via a smart phone, though that capability is still being refined. There again, Trojan indicated, consumers are grappling with the up-ending of convention. As he explained, “They automatically come to a conclusion of, ‘Yes, I can pay in my phone, but I still have to wait for my server to bring me my check, right?’”

In the set-up BJ’s is eying, where customers would handle both order placement and settlement of their bills, servers would be reduced to plate luggers and table clearers.

Still, that’s more staffer interaction than some customers of Panera Bread Co. would have under the chain’s new 2.0 service system. Takeout patrons place and pay for an order by pushing buttons, then grab the takeout order off a shelf, with zero human-to-human connection.

Pollo Tropical/Taco Cabana’s human-less takeout.
The disintermediation of servers (that’s geek-talk for “being rendered unnecessary”) isn’t quite as severe in most recasts of counter servers’ roles. Fiesta Restaurants, the parent of the Pollo Tropical and Taco Cabana quick-service chains, revealed this week that it’s experimenting with curbside delivery. Instead of coming into a unit, patrons could use a smart phone app to place and pay for their meal, then set a time for pick-up. A server, once again reduced to food hauler, would deliver the meal at a pre-arranged parking space.

“In the next few months we will expand the smart phone test into the additional markets with system wide implementation planned for the foreseeable future,” CEO Tim Taft told investors.

McAlister’s Deli is also looking at curbside service, previously an option limited to the casual sector.

Tim Hortons’ bid to foster more interaction.
In fairness to the brands that intend to cut server-customer interaction, all indications suggest that consumers prefer high speed over high touch. Think of the banking industry, where ATMs seem to be the preferred mode of service because of the convenience.

Still, not all restaurant operators are convinced the character and feel of a brand can be conveyed via an app. Canada-based Tim Hortons, for instance, hopes to increase its U.S. traffic by convincing Americans to forego the drive-thru and step into the chains’ restaurants. CEO Marc Caira explained to investors that he wants to introduce more U.S. consumers to the chain’s on-premise breakfast service, a staple of many Canadians, and then coax them into coming back for snacks and lunch.

Part of that effort, he said, will be the development of products specifically for the American market. “In the past we may have tried to perhaps use Canadian products a bit too often,” Caira remarked.

Gun fanatics put Jack in the Box staff in crossfire.
This week’s theme is servers under siege. Unfortunately, that term didn’t apply just figuratively this week.

Picture this head-spinning scenario: A group of armed men enter your restaurant, several with guns in hand. Do you …

A. Assume they’re going to rob you.

B. Assume they’re going to shoot you.

C. Assume they’re going to rob you, then shoot you.

D. Assume they’re just grabbing a bite to eat before heading to a pro-gun demonstration.

Astonishingly, the crew at a Jack in the Box in Fort Worth, Texas, didn’t opt for “D.” They assumed the guns would soon be turned on them them, so they dashed into a walk-in, locked the door, and called the police.

A dozen policemen arrived, braced for a possible exchange of gunfire. Instead, they found a bunch of pissed-off Second Amendment zealots who immediately sounded off about being treated like criminals. In their estimation, the behavior of the Jack in the Box hourlies and the police was what should have turned the heads of sane citizens that day.

Technology is service to new customers, Wendy’s finds.
“We believe that mobile loyalty, which we are currently testing, will help us to attract new customers and to bring back existing [ones],” CEO Emil Brolick told investors yesterday. The key, he indicated, is using new capabilities to personalize the experience beyond the old stand-by’s of recognizing regular customers or making products to order.

That’s why the chain has already rolled a mobile payment option into 85 percent of units. “It allows customers to pay the way they want to pay,” Brolick stressed.

For similar reasons, Wendy’s just started testing a mobile ordering system, Brolick revealed. “It really gives us the opportunity to establish a different kind of relationship with our customers and a much more individual relationship,” he said.

The technology presumably resonates with what Wendy’s has identified as its second largest group of customers. Millennials already account for 25 percent of the chain’s traffic, Brolick observed. But the brand doesn’t want to ignore its bread-and-butter customer, the Baby Boomer, who still accounts for one out of every three transactions.

Wendy’s intends to woo both groups through the evolution of its menu, Brolick said. “LTOs will play an important role, but our core menu will also evolve,” he said.

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