Food Service in the Digital Age

It is pretty obvious that digital technology has sped up the pace of many industries, as well as the pace of our daily lives. We communicate more quickly, get products delivered more quickly, hire a taxi more quickly, etc. Digital is the way of speed.

However, according to one New York City restauranteur, it is slowing down the process of eating out.

A post on Craigslist’s Rants & Raves board told the following story:

A busy NYC restaurant noticed that despite serving similar numbers of customers over a 10-year period, wait times were longer and customers were complaining about service. In order to identify the problem, the restaurant managers looked at tapes from 2004, and compared them with tapes from 2014 (the time of the story). They found that the average time a customer spent in the restaurant increased from 1 hour and 5 minutes to 1 hour and 55 minutes.

The culprit? Cell phones.


Who needs conversation?

Having been a server in the past for a few summers, I’ve seen it first-hand. Going over to introduce yourself is a struggle when half the table is on their phones, showing each other something, or simply not interacting with each other at all. And as the post says, most customers request more time to decide on a meal, most likely because they were distracted not by their present company, but by their digital screens. Eventually, people look up from these digital worlds feeling as if an eternity has passed in a matter of minutes, and ask for their drinks or food. Finally, food that comes out of the kitchen hot might be sent back for being too cold, perhaps because the customer was distracted when the food first arrived, and then proceeded to try to take the perfect photo for “the gram.”

While the post itself may be an exaggeration, or perhaps completely fictional, the idea is definitely true. So, when I was a server in 2014, this spread like wildfire among servers and managers alike.

However, digital advancements have clearly also improved the overall dining process.

When most people think digital companies and food service, they think of Yelp. Yelp has been the clear choice when it comes to user reviews of restaurants and other food establishments. Every time I look up a new place to eat, whether I am just walking by or it was recommended by someone, I see its rating on Yelp. And while I try not to give this too much weight, it inevitably sticks in my mind.

Why don’t I always value the opinion of the yelp collective; simply, Yelp reviews are always going to skew negative. Think about it yourself, if you have ever left a review on yelp or something similar. If you have, it is more likely that experience was a bad one that you felt you needed to warn people about. Maybe, by chance you had something very great that left you with a lasting impression, but these aren’t as common. And of course, not many people take to Yelp to share with the world their perfectly average dining experience. Now, Yelp currently is much more widely used than it was in the past, so this issue is not as prevalent, but it still exists.

For me, and many managers in the industry, OpenTable is the company of choice. More than simply taking reservations, OpenTable offers restaurants a platform to organize their dining room taking into account traditional and OpenTable reservations, as well as walk ins. The computer software plans, and allows the restaurant to keep track of, the night. So it is incredibly useful.

By adding reviewing capabilities, OpenTable gave a voice to customers which was more applicable and more highly valuable to managers. Since OpenTable reviews can be verified through their reservation and subsequent check-in at the restaurant, managers can combine their own recollection of the customer experience with the posted comment, and determine a solution if necessary.

OpenTable also holds the key to the future.

Sam And Cat Robot Restaurant Open For Business

No, not this…

In Forbes, CEO Christa Quarles spoke about OpenTable’s addition of a payment option. Users are currently able to pay for their bill using the app, provided they checked in to their OpenTable reservation. While the adoption of this is difficult because it requires both restaurant and diner participation, that should not prove to be an insurmountable issue, as the original reservation-taking concept required the same cooperation.

From there, I think OpenTable could take over the final element of food service that needs to be updated; the internal POS system. I remember putting orders into a computer system at work that lloked like it was based on Windows XP. It makes logical sense for OpenTable to manage the entire process, from reservation, to offering, to paying the bill. This way restaurants would have consolidated data on who showed up, how much they spent, and other useful information. OpenTable too would have access to a great deal more data than it does currently. They could even partner with, or acquire, Ziosk, the company that provides tablets to chains like Chili’s and Applebee’s so you can order right at your table (OpenTable itself was acquired by Priceline in 2014).


Everyone loves Chili’s

And then, maybe we won’t even need waiters anymore. Glad I got my serving experience out of the way then.



  1. finkbecca · ·

    Nice article! I’ve been wondering about OpenTable for awhile, I have used it to make reservations online and it’s so easy. I don’t have the app, so I’ve never tried paying with it, but that’s a nice feature. I hadn’t thought about how OpenTable would be designed for seating for each restaurant specifically and that probably makes taking reservations for staff so much easier, as well as keeping track of when someone has a reservation, etc. I’ve also heard about that post before that cell phones are the reason people spend more time/complain more at restaurants. I think it is true, anytime you are out to eat, if you look around, so many people are on their phones. Taking pictures, etc. It’s certainly changing the restaurant atmosphere.

  2. Nice post. I confess that I am a frequent Open Table user (well, as frequently as I dine out), and I had always suspected that the back end was quite robust. I have never had a chance to experience it, though, so thanks for this insight. I always wondered whether it provided a prediction of whether someone who made a reservation always showed up for (or cancelled) the reservation, so I’m very careful about this.

  3. michaelahoff · ·

    50 minutes longer than 2004 is a crazy stat. Open Table’s growing monopoly on the restaurant business is also staggering. That must be tough for independent restaurants, as that realm is already tough to turn a profit in.

  4. Like Michael, I too was startled by that statistic. It seems absurd. Technology is pretty useful in the service industry. Things like being able to know wait times ahead of time or reserving a table electronically are fantastic. I do have a sense of nostalgia for when things were not quite as automated, but in the face of slow pace and inefficiency – technology is a powerful tool.

  5. alinacasari · ·

    Really interesting blog post!! I use Open Table quite a bit and I was always curious about what companies did with all of the information. I think it’s definitely going to be more dominant in the future and the ways we all eat out. It’s much simpler to use services like Open Table. I think being able to pay the bill through the company would be a great feature that I would take advantage of. Interesting to consider how much more data the company would receive if this happens.

    That was such a crazy example! I definitely do think that going out to eat takes longer since our focus is no longer just on the meal or company we are with. Adding in smartphones creates an entirely new distraction and I’ve been one of those people who didn’t know what I wanted to order because I was so distracted. Great post!!

  6. Interesting post! This was a great overview of the pros and cons of having digital tools in the food service industry. I never realized how archaic the concept of waiters is when you consider how technology could expedite the whole restaurant process. By allowing customers to use apps and mobile devices to order/pay, restaurants can focus on improving other parts of their service. I’m interested to see if something like OpenTable can be adapted as a comprehensive platform for most of the customer-facing operations, or if people will continue to prefer the traditional face-to-face interaction.

  7. sandytanny · ·

    Nice post! I’ve actually never used Open Table before, but I am a foodie so it might be time to try it out. Like others have said, that statistic of average customers spending almost an hour longer at restaurants compared to 2004 is so surprising but I can’t say I’m not guilty on constantly being on my phone. While our increasing addiction to our smartphones are cause for concern, you make a great point on how technology has also helped the overall dining process. If only there was an incentive to not use your phone at the table.

  8. Tyler O'Neill · ·

    I really enjoyed your post and found it relatable! When I’m out to dinner I want nothing more than to enjoy the company of the people I am with and delicious food (obviously). With that being said it is absolutely ridiculous that peoples dinning times have almost doubled over a ten year period. I think OpenTable definitely provides a unique opportunity for restaurants to use technology to overcome the problems that have arisen from technology (isn’t that ironic). I also agree with you that it makes sense for OpenTable to manage the entire process from making the reservation to paying the bill. Getting data on the entire process would be a huge asset to restaurants.

  9. mashamydear · ·

    Interesting suggestion to have OpenTable acquire Ziosk and control all aspects of the dining experience. I just wonder if there’s a limit to that depending on the type of restaurant. I doubt fancy restaurants would ever employ a tablet instead of a waiter, unless their was some holographic waiter to accompany it! I also agree with you on the advantage that OpenTable has that Yelp lacks, that is, knowing whether the table that was booked actually came and ate at the restaurant. Anyone can post a review on Yelp, and many businesses have been inflating their ratings by posting fake reviews. Meanwhile, OpenTable has the data to back it up making it more trustworthy for users and businesses that are looking to resolve problems.

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