Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Human Touch

"Honey, we've been at this so long, Margie and I waited on The Last Supper."

I don't have a lot of experience using computers to wait tables. I know it's been pretty common for the last 20 years or so, but I managed to dodge around their introduction into the service industry by switching over to banquets, working in mom and pops or doing off-site catering. I was around for the early years of them (it was a mess!) and I did get back into waiting after they had become standard at the end of my career.

The first terminals I worked with were pretty simple, but it wasn't long before the entire operation of the restaurant was controlled by the computer. If it went down - everything stopped. The cash register wouldn't open, orders couldn't be rung, waiters couldn't clock in or out. And nobody had the sense God gave a pig to have a backup plan for any of it. Our managers were so intimidated by the corporate office that they wouldn't let us just write a ticket or call an order, and in those early years, the computers went down all the time.

One of the saddest casualties of the computer invasion was my very favorite cook at the pancake house, Beau. We used a ticket that had a box on it for every item, and a little bit of space to write special order abbreviations in standard waiter slang. There were about 130 items on that ticket and Beau had memorized where every one of them was, because he couldn't read. I don't think a lot of people knew it, but he confessed it to me when they were first talking about getting rid of the tickets. We didn't stay in touch after he left, and I don't know if he ever did learn to read or what he wound up doing, but he was a really great cook and I loved working with him.

I know the point of sale (POS) system is supposed to help out with inventory and, for a certain style of bartender or cook, it is probably easier to deal with than actually talking to a waiter, but I miss the old days of calling stuff "on the fly" when I needed it quick and the rhythm of working with people instead of just working in the same building as they did. I know some people wrote a lousy ticket, and I know some cooks and bartenders could be jerks and ignore or "not hear" some orders, but for me, it beat the heck out of searching through screen after screen for "modifiers" and I could sure write:

Dew/ spl

faster than I could find the keys for GIN add TONIC, BOURBON, JACKDANIELS, add COKE, MANHATTAN/ ON THE ROCKS and DEWARS, add SPLASH OF WATER. And I could write it while they ordered or on the way to the bar. I didn't need to find a terminal. By the time I'd typed in my order I could have served two tables. When I was cocktailing, I mostly just called the drinks when I put up the ticket and the bartender didn't even read it - he'd just red-line it.

The other thing I don't like about using a computer in a bar or restaurant to place orders is that order changes or sometimes coupons or discounts need to be handled by a manager, and managers were the least dependable of all the people I worked with in almost any place I worked. If they weren't locked up in their office, they were outside smoking or wandering around someplace where nobody could seem to find them. The longer I had to wait for manager, the angrier my customers would be and the less money I'd make. Two circumstances like that would sandbag my whole night: Say, one table had a birthday coupon for 50% off and I needed the Rib-eye taken off someone's ticket because the kitchen didn't let us know it was 86'd. Could be ten minutes lost right there when it used to be just as simple as crossing something off the ticket, and while I understand management's fear that people might take advantage of the system, that system worked just fine for at least a century before.

There's a win and lose to both, but one method plays the hand from the assumption that waiters steal, inventory control takes priority over service, and automated communication is more efficient than face to face contact. I could pace my tables and communicate better with the kitchen in person. When you put a machine in between the waiter and their cook, or their customer, you've lost something that can't be immediately quantified, but eventually amounts to less camaraderie among the employees, more red tape and a less intimate dining experience for customers.There might not be specific column for those on an accountant's spread sheet, but that doesn't mean they don't show up in the bottom line.


  1. I've been in restaurants where the wait staff has to wait to use the computer... seems as tho they need extra ones so orders aren't backlogged.. As for Beau, I hope for his sanity and sake he did learn to read... If one can't read, they are totally lost....he would lose out on a lot of advantages... such a sad situation.

  2. I've done both and I much prefer the hand written ticket way - it just seemed faster and easier.

    This is a well thought out post. Thanks.