Do you think playing with a smart phone at the dinner table is rude? Would your answer change if you were at a restaurant that encouraged texting? More specifically texting your server. That is the idea behind TextMyFood — a Cambridge, MA, start up that is selling systems to restaurants to support just such a service (Chk Plz: Restaurants Try Texting To Speed Service, Jan 17, NPR). Here is how the company’s website explains the service’s value to customers:
How often has this happened to you?
You’re seated at your favorite restaurant, the server has just brought your meal and checked if you need anything before heading back to the kitchen. In the next instant, you discover something: a wrong side dish, meat slightly undercooked, someone drops a fork. But the server is out of sight. …
With TextMyFood there is no need to wait or flag down another server or get out of your seat — just dash off a quick text message and your server will directly respond to your request.
So there is clearly some value to such a system for short, simple requests. As the graphic at right shows, the kinds of requests that can come in are often short and fairly time specific. Another round of drinks might be a fine idea right now, but may be less so if they don’t show up for 15 minutes.
The NPR story reports that the restaurant staff see some benefit to the system:
“There are pros and cons,” says Kristina Henry, a server at Charlie’s. “It’s great for a night like Friday night when we’re really busy. It’s packed and you’re running around [and] people text like, ‘Can I have my check please?'”
Even though TextMyFood may make her job easier, Henry says she finds the service impersonal.
“As a server, I would rather want to go to the guest and talk to them face to face and ask them what they would like instead of getting it through a computer,” she says.
Of course, the selling point of the system is more revenue from the restaurant. From TextMyFood’s FAQ, we have:
There are three quantitative monetary benefits with TextMyFood.
- Additional revenue from drinks, apps, side dishes, and desserts. A set of guests will order an additional round if it is fast and convenient to do so. Otherwise, this set of guests may go straight to ordering their food. The revenue of a round is about $12-24; profit @50% $6-12. At three extra rounds per day, this comes to $540- $1,080 in incremental profit per month. Incremental desserts add about another $540- $1,080 per month, bringing the total per month to $1,080-$2,160.
- More efficiency and less waiting for the server mean more table turns per day (less time waiting around for the check, etc.). This can add another 10% to daily revenue.
- More repeat visits and more new guests. The allure and benefit of texting keeps guests coming back and draws new ones. The value of retaining each guest has been estimated to be between $300 and $5,000 (for business customers) per month.
Table etiquette aside, does this system make sense? There are certainly selling opportunities in restaurants that are time sensitive — whether that is another round of drinks or desserts. However, I wonder what impact this system has on overall service responsiveness. Your waiter might not be immediately available either because he is chatting with a colleague or because he is waiting on someone else. On a busy night, there is likely not much chatting and that means improved service for Table 4 may come at the expense of the good folks at Table 8. That is, TextMyFood essentially creates a priority system where the squeaky wheels (i.e., avid texters) get served first. That might be fine depending on the crowd being served but it could also mean that non-texters get fairly bad service.
It is also not quite clear to me how requests should be prioritized. Dropping off the check is the essential step in turning the table and getting the next party seated (and presumably locked in to buying dinner). But should that be prioritized over someone wanting to buy more drinks right now or someone whose food is getting cold because of a dropped fork?
A final question that neither the NPR story or the company website deals with: How does this impact servers’ tips? I could see the effect going either way. If the system really drives efficiency and larger tabs, then tips should go up. On the other hand, if it reduces the experience/interaction with the server, I could see tips falling.