Hi-tech ordering has come a long way from sushi conveyer belts. While pioneering chefs like Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià have pushed innovation in the kitchen, applying scientific methods to develop new dining sensory experiences, a few innovative London restaurants are turning hi-tech to revolutionise service.
For years, maitre’d and waiters, relying on simple pen and paper, have provided the staple service experience. Now, card systems, interactive tables, and restaurant apps put customers in charge of ordering. While efficiency and customisation are key, fast food needn’t mean junk food. And hi-tech needn’t mean the age of the robot doing away with the human touch. Instead, busy service staff are free to focus on what matters: attentive service and fresh food.
Minutes from the LED screens of Piccadilly Circus, Inamo on Regent Street is London’s hi-tech ordering pioneer. Inamo was conceived in a “eureka” moment when founders Noel Hunwick and Danny Potter were left waiting in a busy Pizza Express for a waiter to bring their bill. Noticing that, once served, customers become a secondary priority for waiters (unless the table is wanted), they wondered how the process could be improved. ‘Wouldn’t it be great to reach down, touch the table, and another drink would arrive?’ Noel tells us. Typically Thomas Edison-inspired, the answer lay in tech. Why not put ordering and bill-settling in the hands of customers?
Eliciting a “wow” response, at the heart of Inamo is an interactive ordering system. Built in to each table, a touchpad allows diners to navigate a graphic interface that’s projected onto each table from a space-age terminal overhead. You can browse options and place orders, with images of each dish projected onto the plate before you. The food is accessible Asian-fusion with a strong Japanese flavour and emphasis on presentation. And the Japanese styling fits the bill, considering the nation’s association with all things gadgetry and digital.
The Inamo concept combines the playful and the practical. Noel Hunwick explains, ‘Our ideas expanded from the highly functional idea of giving guests control over their dining experience, to incorporate more theatrical and charming elements.’ Beyond functionality, diners can even view the kitchen via chef-cam, browse info on the neighbourhood, and play a few games while they wait.
The interactivity delivers an intimate, personalised experience. Asian-style sharing and successive small-bite ordering is encouraged. Emphasising the personal experience, the customer sets the mood from various Asia-kitsch tablecloth styles that are switchable with a click. You can even forward personal pictures to be added to your table before dropping in.
Another key player is Vapiano, a resolutely modern chain combining German tech with Italian food. It brings Oyster touch-card technology to chain dining, through 21st century self-service. Serving up Southern-Italian style dishes in a high-end canteen setting, customers are given a touch-card on arriving to order food in-person from an open kitchen without the need for table-service. Diners place orders directly from the chefs, making any customisations they want, and then watch their food being prepared before them and have a chat with their chef.
Customising your experience is central to Vapiano. ‘We prepare it exactly the way you like it,’ Ermiyas Beyene General Manager of the Great Portland Street branch tells us. This large space has multiple dining ambiences; airy and natural light front-of-house and cosy lounge-style booths at the back. ‘If customers want to sit here or there, they can. They’re free to feel like this is their home. No one is shepherding them.’
Vapiano’s food preparation is super-fast: up to three minutes for pasta, though one chef’s personal-best was 43 pastas in an hour. The on-demand quality and efficiency is perfect for busy shoppers around Oxford Street. At the end of your meal, you take your card to the host at the front-of-house and pay up.
Hi-tech ordering doesn’t end with the restaurant. A clutch of delivery services in recent years such as Just Eat, Hungry House, City Pantry and Deliveroo have partnered with takeaway restaurants, neighbourhood locals and chains to deliver dishes directly to your home via online and mobile ordering.
Elsewhere in London, big-boy meat purists at Grillshack on Carnaby Street equip waiting staff with tablets to take orders directly to the kitchen, and at Piccolino on Exchequer Square you can scan QR codes on the menu to find out more about the dishes. Doing away with the sommelier’s table-breaking wine tome, Maze, Bread Street Kitchen and the Vineyard at Stockcross have switched their extensive wine catalogues to digital. Even Inamo’s inspiration, Pizza Express, has upped its game, enabling customers to settle their bill online.
State-side, tablet-ordering systems and e-menus seem set to stay. Chain-restaurants Bolt Burgers, Red Robin, Uno Chicago Grill, Applebee’s and Chili’s have embraced tablet-ordering, allowing diners to order and pay without a server. Tablet manufactures such as Ziosk, E la Carte and Altametrics provide the hardware.
Tech moves fast, so it’s make-or-break crucial that restaurateurs distinguish between the useful and the wacky. High up-front costs increase the risk restaurants run when investing in unproven tech. Wink Bistros was a casualty of early adoption. The US chain pioneered touchscreen videos but closed its branches in 2008 citing the declining economy. At the end of the day, hi-tech ordering is only as worthy as the food it serves.