Photo: saschapohflepp, Flickr
Now Applebee's is borrowing the Omnibot's shtick, employing a newfangled electronic system that's designed to downplay the human element of service. In restaurants across central Florida, servers are now outfitted with watches that vibrate whenever their guests press tabletop buttons.
Applebee's diner Virginia Wesson this week told the Orlando Sentinel she loves her button, since she often has trouble getting her server's attention.
"This way, they have no choice," Wesson said. "They make sure you can't be ignored."
While I don't doubt that many diners are raring to order up a fresh sweet tea at the very moment they empty their glasses, I'm not sure the system represents a great advance for restaurant service. What happens when Wesson and another guest lunge for their buttons at the same time? The system seems to have the potential to create a roomful of angry patrons, futilely jabbing their buttons and subjecting their servers to Stanley Milgram-esque abuse.
And it's not just guests who have the power to buzz servers' wrists: Whenever a table is seated, the hostess alerts the assigned server's watch and sets a timer for 60 seconds. If the server doesn't respond before the clock runs out, the system sends a signal to the manager.
I'm not thrilled by the prospect of being put on an electronic tether. Like anyone who's had to confront the possibility of being replaced by a machine, I believe my job requires a sophistication computers can't yet mimic: There isn't a button anywhere that can bring a shivering guest a sweater from the lost-and-found pile, slip a table an extra serving of smoked fish dip or – as one of my co-workers does -- credibly describe a wine as "the best thing I've ever put in my mouth."
In fairness, all Applebee's button is made to do is call a server to the table. But the system demeans servers, and undercuts their professionalism with the implication they can't be trusted to figure out what guests need and when they need it. I'm guessing servers trained to respond to electronic prodding are ruder and less attentive than servers without controlling watches on their wrists, meaning the system might actually make service worse.
While I'm confident restaurants will become increasingly automated over the coming years – the now-ubiquitous point-of-sale systems that allow a server to electronically communicate with the kitchen have improved the dining-out experience for staffers and guests alike --, I don't think it's yet time for the vibrating watch.
What do you think? Will servers eventually go the way of travel agents and elevator operators? Or should restaurants keep high-tech solutions out of their dining rooms?