Margo Will and Lisa Jafferies are affable and willing to talk about their experience with the Presto. They were first-timers with the Presto.
"We started to order through it, even though we're so old," Jafferies laughs. "But then Josh, our waiter came up, and we just talked with him."
"But then we played a game on it," Will says, "And that was fun."
Both women agreed that the main advantage of the Presto was that the digital menu featured photographs and extended descriptions of the food items. They could really know what they were getting. "It's a good way to learn about what the food looks like," Will said. "It's visual."
They did worry, though, about the labor implications of the device: if you don't need waitstaff for taking orders, what do you really need them for? "There'll be no more waiters and I don't know who will be cooking back there. Probably some robot," Will says. "It'll be back to the Automats."
I tried to present a more hopeful scenario. Perhaps the paperwork would get automated and then the servers could concentrate on knowing the food and wine better, solely doing the service and explanation without the hassle of keying in orders. The duo weren't buying it.
"I don't want people losing their jobs of because of something like this," Jafferies says. "That's the main thing I think about. The bottom line for the restaurant could be that they don't have to staff as many people per schedule. So what happens to those people?"
Ayers, for his part, is careful to note that he keeps his restaurant staffed precisely as it would be without the tablets. But in general, if a restaurant can save money per table by cutting staff, do we really think that they won't?
"In San Francisco, the cost of labor is $10 an hour, the highest in the country for staff," Suri tells me, "So if you can reduce 10 percent of your staff, it's just a huge win."
Well, for the restaurant owner anyway. It is impossible to ignore that this technology threatens a job class, which through its flexibility and unusual
hours, has supported many people trying to pull themselves up through
school or a creative career.
But the employees that remain, Suri argues, are actually better off. Their data shows that after their tablets are deployed, the staff's per-night tips tend to go up both because servers cover more tables but also because, for whatever reason, people tip better through the machine than they do otherwise.
In any case, be on the lookout for a tablet coming to a table near you. Whether it's a dedicated piece of hardware like the Presto or some kind of smartphone or iPad-based solution, the next round of automation is already on its way to this corner of the service industry.
* Correction 3/4/12: This story originally, and incorrectly, stated that E La Carte could save $45 in labor costs per table. That was due to an unfortunate interview recording mistranscription. The correct number is $4 or $5, not $45 as originally stated. We regret the error, and blame the iPhone. Overall savings, then, E La Carte says, are roughly $15 per table.