Food+Tech: Ripe for innovation, but no photos on my menu, please
Food plus technology: two of my favorite subjects, and, in my opinion, two industries that have never been better suited to work together. Respected VC Dave McClure recently took on the restaurant menu in a post titled Why Menus Suck + Other Deep Thoughts on the Food Tech Revolution, and here’s why I think most of the ideas in his post miss the mark.
For purposes of this comparison, I’m assuming that he’s talking about sit-down establishments — given his emphasis on waitstaff and use of the word “tableside” — as opposed to casual experiences, like ordering at the counter during your lunch hour from the place around the corner from your office.
Here’s my beef: the sort of disruption he is proposing would ruin an otherwise delightful dining experience.
McClure complains about several things, most notably: lack of food photos on menus, lack of a menu’s social interactivity and ability to “remember” a diner, and lack of discounts and perks while visiting. (He’d also like to enjoy games and apps while waiting for his food or the check, which I’m not even going to touch. Really? You do?)
There’s a place for photos. Fast-casual restaurants like TGIFridays and Applebees picture new, popular, or specialty items on their menu — and I’m a hypocrite if I don’t admit the Chili-Lime Shrimp Tacos that I ate on Sunday, straight off the shiny Chilis menu. Obviously, dolmades at an east coast diner are nothing if not pictured in detail on the seven-page menu. My point: these consistency-based restaurants thrive on predictability and fast, easy satisfaction. The McDonalds empire was built on this idea. It works, and a certain breed of restaurants do it with great success.
Regarding interactivity and history: third-party apps like Foursquare, Yelp, OpenTable and Foodspotting aggregate restaurant information to provide any interested diner with a fully informed experience: reviews, tips, photos. My GrubHub app reminds me that I only order the flat rice noodles with my Wonton soup every time I order from my favorite take-out restaurant. And, I bet my friend with an anaphylactic dairy allergy will tell you that no matter how many ways a menu-item presents itself as dairy-free, she’s still going to ask her waiter to ask the kitchen to ensure her actual health and safety after choosing a certain item.
As for loyalty: reservation systems alert hosts to frequent diners, and savvy waitstaff remembers favorite orders (and there’s even an outlet for complaining about your waiter if they fail to remember you want the burrata — absolutely not the mozzarella — on your pizza.) I love the Mexican restaurant on my corner and the pizza place one block over, and I’ve forged great relationships with the staff, even enjoying a perk or two from time-to-time, and not with scientific regularity.
A good restaurant crafts the entire experience, from the time you enter until the time you leave. McClure’s “solutions” — streamlining processes, tailoring menus to diners’ preferences, displaying photos of food before ordering — will do more to depersonalize the restaurant experience for a diner than make them feel more connected. Waitstaff won’t have recommendations for diners; they’ll have algorithms to defend. The executive chef, who carefully built the menu, will see his creativity falling on a blind eye that’s solely interested in, say, vegetarian options. The diner, intrigued by one bright ingredient in a photo of a salad will disappointedly learn that ingredient was unavailable at the market this week, but may not care to understand that the chef has taken care to replace it with an equally tasty option.
I’ve never worked back of the house at a restaurant, so can’t claim to understand industry technology or what works best behind-the-scenes. But as a patron (as I assume McClure is writing) here’s what I think: Restaurants, at least the ones I want to spend time visiting, aren’t in the business of entertaining diners with flashy menus or games and apps (seriously!) during service. They’re in the business of curating a pleasurable experience crafted by a professional who, much like an artist, is devoted to his or her craft.