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Food Detective: Imagine a waiterless world

Menu-ordering devices such as eTab take real live servers out equation.

Menu-ordering devices such as the eTab take real, live servers out of the equation.

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Updated: September 20, 2011 12:28AM



In my neighborhood, there’s an old office supply shop run by people who don’t seem to like customers all that much. Every time I walk in there, I get the “Why are you bothering me?” vibe.

I’ve found it’s much less unpleasant to go online and order from Office Depot. I’d rather support the small local business, but the atmosphere in that customer unfriendly shop is just too uncomfortable.

Similarly, at restaurants, sometimes the servers are just not really there . . . or maybe they just wish they weren’t.

I heartily enjoy the experience of chatting with those who make and serve my food. Whether at white-tablecloth cathedrals of chow or street-side taco carts, conversing with people who are passionate about food is one of the principal joys of eating out.

It’s in the middle zone of dining — at “casual restaurants” — where I encounter servers who too often make it clear they’d rather be anywhere other than standing next to my table, talking about food.

At the National Restaurant Association Show at McCormick Place last month, I had mixed emotions while investigating what seems to be an emerging trend of 2011: electronic menus.

For restaurants at the high and low end of the dining spectrum, an e-menu is problematic: The grander places put a premium on service, and the humbler places can’t afford fancy technology. These e-menus — which make it largely unnecessary to interact with servers — are aimed at the vast middle ground of dining establishments.

At the NRA show, I spoke with several developers of e-menus that enable restaurant patrons to order and pay wirelessly, entirely avoiding the hassle of human contact.

eTab is a “self-service ordering and payment technology” that makes it possible for patrons to “order any . . . menu item without their server.” The company has developed a sleek tabletop touch-screen monitor to display food options.

MenuPad is an Australian company with an iPad-based menu integrated with Robert Parker’s e-wine list. Such e-wine lists are being used in Chicago; e-menus, as of this writing, are not. Yet.

TitBit is a “menu platform” that connects with Facebook and Twitter, so while avoiding a human server you still can chat live about your dinner with a multitude of strangers.

Ordering and paying from a touch screen definitely removes some of the human element that I so enjoy from the dining equation.

But if servers at mid-level casual restaurants — the target market for these e-menus — are just not that “into” the whole serving experience, then replacing them with an automated menu system might be a happier outcome for all involved.

David Hammond is an Oak Park writer, Chicago Public Radio contributor and founder/moderator of culinary chat site LTHForum.com. E-mail detective@suntimes.com.



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