After minimal convincing from a good friend of mine, last week I went to Chili’s for the first time in years. While expecting the comforting fare, I was surprised by the “hip” feel Chili insiders were clearly trying to conjure.The marketing ploy was successful on me as I ravaged chips and guacamole, but I did wonder what Chili’s transformation said about the future of the chain-restaurant experience, particularly in terms of the drinks industry. Notably, the biggest “innovation” was not the bistro burgers or updated decor, but the way in which you ordered.Back in 2014, the Atlantic reported that Chili’s had installed 45,000 table-top ordering systems, designed by Ziosk. You’ve probably run across these devices by now in several different locations, whether they be Chili’s or a similar chain restaurant. While there are obvious corporate benefits, such as seemingly eliminating the need to pay or train servers, the tablets have a deeper, psychological influence as well.
As Megan Garber reported, the Ziosk systems keep patrons from having to communicate to another human being, which can be particularly pesky when one feels glutinous for ordering queso with their hamburger. In other words, robots (at least in this pre-AI world) don’t judge you for that extra Coke and the preemptive unbuttoning of the pants.
Chili’s is not the only company to have this idea; in late 2016, McDonald’s announced it was going to implement table service in all 14,000 American locations — but without servers. Again, they are going to use table-side tablets, perhaps the perfect, judgement-free mediator between patrons who watched Supersize Me but are now shamefully craving a Big Mac. The decision comes after years of criticism for their exponentially unhealthy food.
While the system is relatively new and profits largely yet to be seen, the core concept remains enticing as it encourages undeterred ordering of a questionable amount of product. But what if that product was craft beer, in place of dip? What if it was your fourth craft beer, following a Mai Tai? What if instead of battling other patrons through a crowd and demanding a round of flaming shots from an overwhelmed bartender, they were delivered to your table at the click of a button?
Other than biology’s way of punishing excessive drinking with a nasty hangover, guilt is also a big factor in the drinking experience. Bustle published an article about “Drinker’s Guilt,” citing everything from “you’ve let yourself down” to “you’re ordering the wrong things” as reasons why people feel bad (mentally, that is) after a night out. While drinking irresponsibly is one thing, sometimes even a second beer can give customers the willies.
As a lover of the traditional “bar atmosphere,” it’s difficult to advocate for the electronic takeover of the alcohol-serving process. The table-top serving system, however, could be a great success for businesses if targeted more for drinkers, especially those who just want to sit around and get buzzed rather than fight for a half-priced rail mixer.