Fast Casual Restaurants Need Mobile POS

Amazon recently announced the exciting Amazon Go — their staffless supermarkets that will provide the kind of seamless, 21st Century shopping experience we should be aiming for. Restaurants need this too. The dining experience is needlessly inefficient for both diners and restaurateurs due to traditional and obsolete human-based POS (point of sale) systems, and it’s time for change.

Supermarkets are product experiences with a mandatory service layer on top. We go to buy food that we intend to later eat, and we need people to scan our items and take our money.

Nobody rushes to a supermarket to see the cashier’s breathtaking ability to put items into bags. The checkout is simply a necessary evil justified by two things: inventory and sales tracking, and the human’s biological predisposition to be a greedy bastard.

In other words: supermarkets need to keep track of which items they’re selling, and make sure customers don’t just steal their items. Ergo, supermarkets have checkouts and scanners and card machines and tills, all manned by humans. Amazon, however, has streamlined the grocery shopping process by digitising this service layer and removing the necessity of human service staff.
 
Sure — for many people dining is not just a product experience, but a service experience too. This is particularly true for fine dining and the high-end section of the restaurant market. These consumers are paying for top-notch customer service as well as great food — bundled together to constitute a social occasion. 
 
But the fast-casual sector — the strongest growing segment across the industry (up 10.4%, $3.4 billion in 2015) — is different. “Fast casual” restaurants are simply those that can be described as a compromise between fast-food joints and casual diners. The service is limited, meal prices generally fall somewhere between £7 and £11, and food is made-to-order but with fewer processed ingredients and more complex flavours than McDonald’s and their chicken-toenail-selling counterparts. Think FiveGuys, Chiquito, Nando’s.

Consumers are seeking three things from fast-casual diners: speedy service, affordable prices and food quality that is good, but commensurate with the bill. They want to walk through the door, be seated and served promptly, eat a respectable meal that does the job, and be on their way as quickly as possible.
 
Just today I ate lunch at Ed’s Diner. Everything was fast, but we became (quietly) impatient [1] and agitated after waiting 10 minutes for the bill. This may seem trivial — and it certainly isn’t the end of the world — but regardless, it’s completely unnecessary, stupid inefficiency that should be purged from the sector.

Generally speaking, when we go to a venue to consume a product or service, we pack up and leave right after we’re done consuming said product or service. Why, in 2016, are we sitting around in restaurants waiting to pay so that we can leave? This problem is crying out for a proper, digital solution.
 
The other part of the restaurant experience most ripe for disruption is the ordering process. No time should elapse between the point at which we decide what we want to eat, and the moment at which our order is placed. This is just nonsensical, and perpetuated only by the vacuous persistence of tradition, which is — and always will be — a stubborn anchor to the S.S. Progress.

Consumers should be sending orders directly to fast-casual restaurant kitchens from their seats as soon as they are ready — and paying at the same time. Consumers should have unrestricted access to the steering wheel here.

Eliminating the unnecessary steps in the POS circuit is easily doable with digital systems. It will streamline the dining experience for consumers and massively improve UX. It will reduce overhead for restaurateurs and give them instantaneous access to an array of free, precise, highly individualised sales and customer satisfaction data. Everybody wins [2]. 
 
Some have already taken a crack at it. There are lots of EPOS (electronic point of sale) systems on the market — but they tend to be tablet focused, and many of them just digitise the communication between waiters and kitchens. Lightspeed serves 40,000 businesses, for example, but they put tablets into the hands of waiters and waitresses, which is a half-baked fix.
 
The real solution involves replacing the human waiter with a digital one — the customer’s smartphone (or table tablets operated by the customer, which is the next best thing). The customer would be able to access the restaurant’s menu directly from their phone, send orders directly to the kitchen, and pay before eating. Installation would a breeze for both parties: restaurateurs need only an internet-connected machine with a monitor for the kitchen, and a menu to upload to the system. Diners need only their smartphones. It’s that simple.

There are questions and challenges to face up to, of course. Notably, how do we mitigate internet connectivity issues? How do we prevent bogus orders by pranksters who aren’t even at the restaurant at all? What if customers change their minds about orders? 
 
But if it was easy, someone probably would’ve done it already. Restaurants should be better, and they will be soon enough.

[1] The cliché goes that ‘’patience is a virtue’. Even if we are to accept this statement, it doesn’t necessarily mean that impatience is a sin. On the contrary: impatience is the foundation of change and progress. The dissatisfaction of a single person with the status quo has, time and time again, led our species to greater feats and a more inclusive society. All revolutionaries were at some point impatient. They could see a better future ahead, and they refused to simply wait for it to arrive.

[2] Okay — not everyone wins. Waiters and waitresses lose their jobs. This is the short-term price of technological progress from which many later benefit. Automation is likely to have a net-positive economic effect in the long term, but I do think founders in the space should work responsibly with government to prepare for the transition that is on our doorstep. The sooner this dialogue starts, the better.