There is constant chatter of late about artificial intelligence, growing opportunities to integrate technology in restaurants, home delivery initiatives, ghost kitchens without guest interaction, and several ways we can become more efficient during a time when the labor challenges seem impossible. I get it – restaurateurs and chefs need to find solutions to a litany of problems that consume their daily thoughts. What worries me is not what might be gained, but more importantly, what will be lost.
From the earliest days of the restaurant business – taverns for vagabond travelers, we have been focused on providing a welcoming environment where people could feel comfortable, enjoy a meal by themselves or with like-minded folks, forget their weariness or concerns for a moment, enjoy a tasty meal, and raise a glass in celebration or communion. There was typically a hand to shake, a warm smile, a nod of recognition, or even an extra effort to make people feel at home – a home away from home. That is hospitality and the industry that we are all in. Of course, we make wonderful, creative, tasty food and noteworthy drink, but it has always been the welcoming environment that brings people back.
“The handshake of the host determines the flavor of the roast.”
Without hospitality, the restaurant business is relegated to becoming a commodity – a manufacturing business focused on feeding rather than serving. So, yes, I am worried about the conversations around technology as the answer to our current challenges. Don’t get me wrong – there is a place to embrace it and a number of ways through which adoption of technology can improve our efficiency and profitability, but please -let’s keep a firm grip on our position as a welcoming business, a comfortable place where people can engage or escape, can feel rewarded for what they do in life, a place where friends and family can celebrate together and laugh with reckless abandon, and where compromises are made and deals are negotiated, a place that has a sacred purpose that goes way beyond great food and beverage. Food and beverage are the attraction, but it is the hospitality piece that makes the experience memorable.
What is it we are really selling in a restaurant? Why would anyone want to spend a significant sum just for food that realistically could be prepared at home with some basic skills. Of course, talented chefs will put their signature on a dish that requires skills beyond any accomplished home cook, but without the trimmings of hospitality, without the ambience that we invest in creating, without the smile of a talented server, or the chef who stops by a table to chat with a guest; without a mixologist willing to listen to a single patron sitting at the bar, or a host checking in on a patron’s meal or sommelier offering comforting suggestions about a pairing, we are left with simply providing nourishment, and quite frankly that is so much less inviting.
I’m sure I’m old fashioned, but I relish that favorite server who knows what I like to drink and asks about my family or my work. I enjoy the host who greets me by name since I have been there a few times before, or the chef who stops by my table on a busy night just to say hello and make a recommendation. I want to hold a physical menu in my hand that feels as if someone put real effort into making it part of the tabletop rather than taking a picture of a QR code and reading it on my cell phone. Maybe that’s just me, but it is an important part of the experience.
“Hospitality is central to the restaurant business, yet it’s a hard idea to define precisely. Mostly, it involves being nice to people and making them feel welcome. You notice it when it’s there, and you particularly notice it when it isn’t. A single significant lapse in this area can be your dominant impression of an entire meal.”
– John Lanchester (British Journalist)
Many restaurateurs and chefs are attracted to a life in restaurants because they enjoy creating experiences, making people happy, building plates of food that give people pause and serving wines that take a person’s breath away. A clean plate coming back from the dining room is a cook’s greatest reward. A guest who stops before allowing a fork to touch a plate so a picture can be taken and posted on Instagram as “extraordinary” is not an annoyance. It is a celebration of the cook’s talent, and the ingredients he or she is privileged to work with.
Technology, and the current discussions around artificial intelligence and even robotics fail to consider anything beyond the efficient preparation and delivery of food – a way to address labor shortages and improve the bottom line. It’s fascinating, but quite depressing at the same time. There is a conversation that needs to occur, “What business are we in – what business do we want to be in?” Unless we have this discussion then unreasonable use of technology could create a restaurant industry far too “plain vanilla” and far less worthy of receiving a guest’s money.
How do we utilize the advantages of technology and stay in control of it, rather than it in control of us? How do we protect what is core to our industry: hospitality, creativity, and the warmth of welcoming service?
In recent months – leaders in artificial intelligence development have sounded the alarm that this technology needs to be controlled. They are begging government to step in and establish parameters before things get out of control. Imagine, the industry that is behind advances in technology is begging to be controlled! We need to do our part and have this discussion and not simply view it as a quick fix to a deeper challenge that needs our attention.
Food for thought.