My Name is Presto and I’ll Be Your Waiter | Innovation | Smithsonian
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My Name is Presto and I’ll Be Your Waiter

At more and more restaurants you'll be ordering your meals on a tablet at your tabletop. Will we miss waiters?

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The Presto ordering system. Image courtesy of E La Carte.

I have seen the future of restaurant dining and it does not involve a waiter named Justin telling me about the rockfish.

No, it’s more like ordering a steak from a vending machine, only it takes longer to come down the chute.

Okay, I may be exaggerating—slightly—but we’re starting to see the touch-screen culture encroach into the world where we tell actual people what we’d like to eat.

Exhibit A is a device called Presto, produced by a Silicon Valley company called E la Carte and the brainchild of Rajat Suri, who dropped out of MIT to turn it into a business.  It’s a tablet—one that actually preceded the iPad—that allows diners to order their meals by tapping on the screen, play games while they wait for their  food, then pay by swiping a credit card whenever they’re ready to go.

It’s already in play in about 100 restaurants, with interest from at least 150 more around the country, according to Suri. To help make that happen, E la Carte received a nice little boost of $4 million in venture capital from the co-founders of Groupon a few months ago.

But not everyone’s a winner. Suri insists his tablet is not meant to eliminate servers—someone has to bring the food to the table and as yet, Presto can’t fill glasses. But part of the pitch to restaurants is that it cuts both labor costs and training time.  Which brings us to…

Exhibit B, another restaurant tablet, called Ziosk, produced by TableTop Media in Dallas. It’s similar to the Presto, except it also lets you read the news and watch movie trailers. Another difference is that it  lets you order only drinks and desserts so you’re still giving your meal order to a server. This summer Chili’s restaurants started rolling out the Ziosk all over the country.

That makes sense. Family chain restaurants would seem to be a sweet spot for tabletop tablets, higher end restaurants where service is part of the signature, not so much. But that brings us to…

Exhibit C, Inamo, an Asian restaurant in London. It doesn’t rely on tablets with seven-inch screens; instead your whole tabletop is interactive, with the menu flashed down in front of you by overhead projectors. Touch the table to see photos of the food and drinks, and tap away to order. While you wait for the delivery people, aka servers, to bring your meal, you can choose a virtual tablecloth for your setting or watch what’s the chef up to on the Kitchen Cam projected in front of you. Or you can play Battleship.

Ah yes, Battleship and bok choy, a dining combo for our times.

Thoughts for food

Here are other innovations in the world of food and drink:

  • I know what you likeNess Computing has developed an iPhone app that trumps most mobile restaurant directories because it makes restaurant recommendations based on both personal preferences and your friends’ comments gleaned from Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare.
  • A head comes with it?: It’s a few years old now, but Foodspotting, the mobile app that lets you see what meals actually look like, is a hot commodity, attracting $3 million in venture capital.
  • Or you can get a cup of water: Burger King is rolling out in almost 900 of its restaurants a soda fountain called Coca Cola Freestyle. You’ll have a choice of more than 100 beverages—sodas, bottled water, sports drinks, teas.
  • Beware of paper cuts: GreenBottle, a British company that invented the first paper milk bottle has stepped it up a notch and is planning to launch the world’s first paper wine bottle next year.
  • No more anticipation:  A Harvard scientist has developed a film that apparently will keep ketchup from sticking to the inside of bottles.

Video Bonus: To see how the tabletops work at Inamo, you can either watch a slick video review with a lame soundtrack or you can check out a home movie version by some dazzled diners.

The question: Would you rather dine out without waiters?

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