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prevalence of self-serve restaurants

A handful of restaurants are adopting a self-service system, and some have proven successful (including Hey Zeus, an Australian-based restaurant coming stateside). But, will consumers embrace it for good?

Enter my first experience with a self-service restaurant.

In July, Wao Bao (a restaurant by Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises) opened a new location down the street from C+R. Not having read much about it, I stopped short my first time entering the store. I didn’t see any employees. Huh? My husband (who had already been) said “oh yeah, you didn’t know, this one’s all automated?” I was a little skeptical as we walked up to the kiosk, especially when the first step is to swipe your credit card (no employees = cashless). Gotta make sure you can pay for it before placing your order! We put in our usual order, entered our name, and were instructed to wait until the wall of screens said our order was ready. When it was time, the screen of our assigned cubby went dark, until a bao character “squeegeed” the window clear to reveal our order. A double tap on the screen, and it opened to provide everything we ordered! (You can get a better sense of how it worked by watching this video).

Simple enough. The food was good (there are employees in the back attending to that part), and we got everything we needed. Still, the skeptic in me wonders if this will really be the way of the future. A few questions that have been rolling around in my head:

  • What happens if something is wrong with your order? How do you reach a person to tell them? (I later read that there will be a “concierge” to help with such problems – they were just outside at the time, promoting the new location.) But, other self-service restaurants, like Hey Zeus, have no front-of-house staff.
  • Will consumers be hesitant to swipe their credit card before even ordering anything? Do we need to worry about “skimmers” being placed on the kiosk?
  • Will consumers embrace a cash-free concept? Several restaurants have become cashless as of late (Sweetgreen, Dos Toros, and Epic Burger to name a few), but some people still prefer to pay cash (or don’t have a credit card). The cash-free debate is one on its own!
  • Will people shy away from a self-service restaurant if they’re craving a human connection?

Time will tell, of course. But, there are several other players on this realm.

  • McDonald’s recently introduced a kiosk option for ordering. But, stores with kiosks still allow you to order at the counter just as before. The last time I was at McDonald’s, most customers opted for business as usual. Panera has a similar model at most of its stores.
  • Square Roots Kitchen, another Chicago-based health-conscious QSR, also opted to replace front-of-house service with electronic ordering. The model is like Wao Bao’s (but without the fancy screen cubby system).
  • Eatsa, the company that powers the technology at Wao Bao, is also a restaurant. But, they closed 5 of their 7 locations in 2017 to focus the business on selling the self-service platform to other chains. (Their focus on the technology and expansion left the food somewhat lacking.)
  • New York-based Shake Shack tried this game and failed. After introducing its first self-service restaurant in October 2017, the company decided to add cashiers to the location by May 2018. The process proved to be more frustrating to customers than convenient or helpful.

In an ever-competitive economy, and with the increase of minimum wage, restauranteurs need to be creative. It will be interesting to see if becoming fully self-service does the trick, or if the McDonald’s/Panera model will remain to provide consumers with an option. Perhaps restaurants that are interested in this new concept would benefit from research to garner the consumers POV.  The geeky researcher in me would love to get my hands on consumer reactions Wao Bao has captured since opening this new location!

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