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Deep Thoughts on the Food Tech Revolution by Captain Obvious McClure (500hats.com)
33 points by playhard 1643 days ago | hide | past | web | 100 comments | favorite

God I'd hate this. Restaurants are places of relaxation, company, discovery, beautiful foods. I want to order something which sounds good and then see whether it is - I want it to come to me as a surprise - "Oh Tuscan Rabbit? I wonder how the chef will do it confit... Oh! Wow, let's try this then!"

It's not about efficiency, it's about atmosphere. I don't want a glowing screen anywhere near my dining table. I don't want anything which helps me order "what I had last time". I don't want them to ask me about the last time I was here 3 years ago either.

Can we invent and work on technology which adds to the beauty and experience of life next please? Either that or get the brain in a jar thing working.

If I want the most efficient dining experience I'll order in or go to a fast food place.

I go to a restaurant for the UX: a date night, the atmosphere, getting out of the apartment, people watching, hanging with friends, etc.

Downtime is the point! It is supposed to take time. It gives me a relaxed period of time to talk with the people I'm with while drinking beer/wine and waiting for the food to arrive. To enjoy the experience.

Converting restaurants to a twitter/facebook 30-second attention span experience seems like a net negative de-evolution to me. I don't play with my phone while I'm at the table with other people - I think it's rude as hell - but Dave does that all the time I suppose.

Giving me a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am experience is not what I want. I don't have children or am in a giant hurry, but it sounds like that's where he's coming from. Perhaps that's a bigger section of the population than I expect.

But, there's a reason why McDonald's has pictures of food as the menu and Ruth's Chris doesn't.

edit: That said, I do wish restaurants had a better idea of who their "best" customers are and all that jazz. I just don't think dropping iPads at every table is the right way to go.

so you really believe that keeping people waiting is what they want?

seriously? seriously? bueller?

ok fine, guess I'm the only customer in the world who hates waiting in fine restaurants.

yeah, right.

Generally at low-moderate restaurants (especially ethnic) the problem is "getting staff to pay attention", at slightly better restaurants my problem is "JFC leave me alone, we're trying to have a confidential conversation". At great restaurants (e.g. Alexander's Steakhouse in SF/Cupertino) they are good at figuring out exactly when to bug you.

Tech could certainly help the lower end restaurants up their game, even if not as relevant on the high end. And on the high end, I could see some kind of CRM making a lot of sense, if they don't do it already -- knowing my preferences on table/etc. is easy if there's only one maitre 'd and location, but if you've got a few locations, tech would help share information.

Waiting? Waiting for what? Food obviously takes time to prepare, so there's a necessary wait as component of the experience. Of course, the "unnecessary" waiting: for a table, for a waiter's attention, etc. are suboptimal. But, I'm not sure an iPad is the solution to that problem.

>>Of course, the "unnecessary" waiting: for a table, for a waiter's attention, etc. are suboptimal

yes, they're very suboptimal. and whether or not it's an iPad that's used to fix the problem, it's probably some type of basic tech. this is the opportunity that i'm talking about.

if you don't experience the frustration of the wait time, then congrats... guess you're not a customer then.

>> yes, they're very suboptimal. and whether or not it's an iPad that's used to fix the problem, it's probably some type of basic tech

Then I think we're in agreement. Restaurants absolutely should be improved

Maybe some way to anonymously rate them and/or tip analysis would help give the owner insight into how their staff is doing. Being able to pay immediately is nice - sometimes at "slow" places that we know we get the check much earlier than when we're ready to leave for just that reason.

Anyway, it's likely I mis-understand the potential solution, I'm visiting a different type of establishment, or I'm not the target audience.

Good luck!

Yes, I agree. Efficiency is not what I want from a restaurant.

Waiting for my order is one of those rare times to spend time with someone, discuss things, and absorb the restaurant atmosphere. A good restaurant menu doesn't list all ingredients and recipes, presentations and pictures. I want that anticipation, that wonder, and that trust in the chef. When I receive my food I like to be surprised; to discovery and explore a dish, even if it's something I've had before.

If the restaurant leaves a lasting impression on me, in terms of atmosphere, service, and taste, then I won't need a reminder of what I had last time. I don't need details/pictures of dishes because I already have that trust in the chef.

And in terms of service, a good restaurant/waiter will recommend something for me, or know what I have ordered in the past. It's part of the social experience of dining, having an actual discussion with the people who know the food.

Dave seems to be suggesting the exact opposite of what I would want in a quality restaurant experience. But I'm sure his opinion is different with children in the mix. It's really interesting how diverse the dining experience can be, and how both class and social groups can change your view of it.

>> "Efficiency is not what I want from a restaurant."

umm, pretty sure that there IS a very large market of people who DO want efficiency as one of the attributes of restaurant customer service, even at the absolute high-end.

in fact, some might say high-end restaurants excel at efficiency and customer service, and technology to bring this to the masses (whether at McD's or at French Laundry) would be welcomed by all.

efficiency != low quality experience; in fact quite the contrary.

If you want an example of an efficient upper-middle range restaurant: Cheesecake Factory. So efficient that someone used it as an example of how to fix the healthcare industry.

They use a lot of science/tech, although not all computers. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/08/13/120813fa_fact_...

yes, and they are probably the best example i'm aware of so far, however i'm not a big fan of their menus... or at least the way they're laid out. like a big selection of movies to choose from, i get hungry/anxious just trying to make a decision. too many good options!

would be great if i could have a few highly-recommended favorites (either theirs, my previous, or friends), and then i can always go "off-road" and dive into the long tail of options if none of those are what i want that evening.

but yes, +1 for CheeseCake Factory.

Yes, their menus are the weakest part. But it would be an excellent restaurant to try something electronic, since it's "fun".

The other thing I like (at some high-end steak or seafood places) is when they roll a cart out with the meats of the day. Or, Chinese Dim Sum carts. If there were a way for tech to replicate that, I'd be quite happy.

Also for delivery or takeout, there's huge potential to show off daily specials and such.

I agree. Intrusive LCD panels at the table, removal from human interaction, horrid restaurant-chosen hierarchies of categories to wade through, etc...

With menus, everybody gets one and can peruse as they see fit, rather than a little shared computer. With a waiter/waitress you can talk through special options or dealing with split bills and anything like that.

And don't get me started on social and tracking -- I can't think of anything that would more quickly destroy my interest in a restaurant than having to log in with twitter or facebook. (And believe me, if the restaurant posted/tweeted on my friend's behalf, they would lose my business.)

The right tool for the job.

If I'm going on a date I want a chef. If I'm going to a cheap izakaya in tokyo with 4-12 friends for cheap drinks and snacks I'm perfectly happy with color LCD ordering touch screens which they've had here since 2005.

There's a time and place for both. Being able to sit and eat with a group of friends and not have a waiter interrupt your conversation can be a plus

>> "Being able to sit and eat with a group of friends and not have a waiter interrupt your conversation can be a plus"

but that's exactly my point. without useful methods of communication with waiters, they will likely interrupt, and/or you will be kept waiting.

i'm flabbergasted by the number of people who seem to interpret efficient communication as mutually exclusive from a high-end restaurant or good customer service.

they aren't at all mutually exclusive, and in fact they are exactly in pursuit of same goal.

Here's a more concrete example of how efficient communication would improve your dining experience. (Disclaimer: The startup I founded, Cloud Dine Systems, does this, so take this with a bit of salt since I'm a bit biased.)

You want a refill of your coffee during the breakfast rush. You can either try to flag down one of the wait staff or send a text to the restaurant with "#Table12 can you refill my coffee?" The wait staff gets the text and delivers you a coffee refill. Notice, you sent off the asynchronous message and then continue talking with your friends instead of pausing the conversation to flag down staff. It translates to better service and a better dining experience because the timing matches your needs. Similar examples follow for anything you would flag a waiter down for.

IMHO, one of the more pressing problems is efficient communication within the restaurant. Here's where the gains from better communication are the greatest. But that's a whole different conversation.

Thank you so much for saying this. It perfectly captures my feelings about this piece - and also my frustration for what eating out has become. I actually had some asshat try to take pictures of the meal I was eating with his iPhone the other day.

It's not merely efficiency, though--the reason that these types of ideas suck is that they only care about buy-in from customers. What the customer thinks would enhance their experience. What the customer thinks would be nice "too many choices oh noes!".

The fact is that for the true clients in the market (the restaurants), we need to look at what makes their lives easier. And over the course of centuries, we've figured out more or less how to optimally use humans to service diners.

Take the idea of perks for frequent diners--this functionality is already exposed in most bars and restaurants if the customer comes back frequently enough to be recognized by the wait staff, and if they aren't so damned obnoxious that the restaurant wants to get rid of them.

Electronic menus for a place with 20 tables could be an outlay of around 4-10K, assuming you need only one tablet per table (you won't) and that the tablets won't ever break (they will) and that the customers will appreciate the move (they may not) and that there is no backend integration (there should be). Or, the owner can spend half that (say, 5 grand) on an 2 additional servers at $2.13/hr (in Texas) and "rent" them for a split 40 hrs/wk and better service. That's just silly.

Taking the example of Tex-Mex food, the same basic palette of food in storage can be combined in many different ways to provide variety to the end user, all with little extra cost to the restaurant, and so why bother simplifying a menu? You needlessly increase the data entropy of the choices offered and in so doing force yourself to have to purchase more varied ingredients (bad) in order to provide fewer perceived menu items (also bad). It's just dumb.

The problem of too much choice, bad descriptions, or not remembering last food ordered is very strictly a diner issue, not a restaurant one. Solving it, despite the relatively large amount of work the restaurant would have to put forth, would result in little payback. The places where people spend enough per-plate to justify that outlay already have quality staff kept on specifically because they can keep track of that and give the high-touch to their select audience.

This really is a great example of somebody trying to use tech to solve problems that don't exist for people in an industry they don't understand.


1) if it's a customer problem, it's a restaurant problem. 2) simplicity helps restaurants as much as customers 3) shorter wait time / quicker payment helps restaurants as much as customers 4) happy customers order more, come back more often 5) pretty sure we have experience in the industry, from 20+ investments in the category. certainly several of our entrepreneurs know what the hell they're doing, especially ElaCarte (also YC co & Lightbank co)

in short, the issues noted are just as much "restaurant" problems as customer problems -- and if you think those aren't connected, you've got even bigger issues as an entrepreneur.

anyway, you're entitled to your opinion. but I'm pretty sure you're assuming a zero-sum game here when actually the solutions help both sides.

I sincerely hope that one of the companies working on solving this restaurant problem, do solve it; partially for the sake of better experience for myself, partially to get all the idiot restaurant owners who think they are in power, out of business.

Speaking of which, perhaps instead of trying to sell the future to people who live in the past, these companies should raise more money and open up their own chains? That would be ballzy, but if the food is good and the experience is great, they could run profitable restaurants, and show that people are ready for the tech.

Thanks for the reply! I'll try to explain my arguments to your points. I know a few folks locally who've been batting around ideas in this space, so it's a topic somewhat near at hand to me. :)

1) if it's a customer problem, it's a restaurant problem.

For certain classes of problems, sure, but there are things like your stated "I want movies, media, etc. while I wait on my meal" that may or may not be worth addressing for any given restaurant--the degree to which the ambiance entertains the diner could be great (a bar with live bands) or nonexistent (a quiet steakhouse). A restaurant need not concern itself with your vegetarian friend if doing so would significantly complicate their supply chain or logistics. It's not always a restaurant problem by any stretch.

2) simplicity helps restaurants as much as customers

The general principle of simplicity, sure, but the implementation can be a headache. If the marginal utility and increased revenue of having four times the number of burger options outweighs the simplicity of limiting to two entrees and nailing the supply chain but getting lower sales, then why bother? Simplicity isn't always needed or desired, and is a preference of the diner just as much--if not more!--than of the restaurant.

3) shorter wait time / quicker payment helps restaurants as much as customers

No argument here, but I think that this is just as easily solved using existing resources (i.e., train employees better) than implementing a whole electronic ordering system.

4) happy customers order more, come back more often

Happy customers do come back more often, and may order more, but again you don't need to buildout a crazy electronic ordering system From The Future (tm) to make your customers happy--I've witnessed people at very high-end high-touch establishments actively turn away attempts at injecting technology (electronic wine lists, in this case) into what they prefer to be a human-to-human interaction.

5) pretty sure we have experience in the industry, from 20+ investments in the category. certainly several of our entrepreneurs know what the hell they're doing, especially ElaCarte (also YC co & Lightbank co)

I wish you luck on your investments! I'm sure you've got some awesome folks you're working with.


I'm not assuming a zero-sum game--I'm simply noting that while it helps both sides, it doesn't help the other side enough perhaps to justify a real change in business. You notice the big change towards electronic ordering (see the Jack in the Box kiosks) in large nation-wide chains where they've so relentlessly optimized and cheapened the dining experience that shaving fractions off their costs on ordering makes sense. For a taqueria or something, the value prop probably isn't there.

EDIT: Also, after looking at your disclaimed companies... my God, man, you really seem to like curated experience and deliveries. Any thoughts you'd like to share on the topic, where it's going, etc.?

I personally agree with everything the article says, and came up with most of these ideas years ago, as my "ideal" restaurant. But most people are like you, and value the status quo restaurant atmosphere over increases in efficiency. There's no way this would work without a massive cultural shift.

But personally, the ridiculously inefficient eating-at-a-restaurant process is one of the reasons (along with saving money and staying healthy) why I prefer to eat at home whenever possible. Other than for social purposes and specialty food, I avoid restaurants like the plague. For example, there is no reason for me to go to an Italian restaurant when I can make the same dishes at home with less time than it'll take me to drive to the restaurant, get a table, eat, and drive back home.

interesting. rather elitist perspective, and seriously out-of-touch with most mainstream consumers.

I'd hate to build a business based on pissing off customers, but I guess you're welcome to give that a spin.

best of luck with that.

Heh, well, I've just got back from a lovely restaurant, and I have to admit that they had a wonderful cellar and a well-matched sommelier, so this will be brief, as I'm having to re-read quite diligently!

I don't really think I'm being elitist - but I will admit that I'm talking about a sector within a market. Clearly I'm not talking about fast food, I'm talking about a specific type of dining experience. If this technology existed within a KFC (and was executed well) I'd like it (yes, I'm that weird guy that likes good dining and the occasional meal of absolute junk...)

I don't think that most restaurants currently piss off customers though - if they did, they'd generally be broke I think. I think you're assuming that the changes you suggest would make the best even better - and I genuinely don't think that would be the case. I think that character, personality, idiosyncrasy etc. are the makers of a great restaurant as much as the food, and I didn't feel like these ideas fitted that - at least within certain markets.

If you're ever in London and you fancy a discussion about what would really make for an incredible restaurant, and you fancy discussing it over wonderful food, give me a shout...

(Dinner's on me, of course)

hope to share a beer and a meal in London sometime then... if we can get the waiter's attention ;)


You're a smart cat. And you've been really successful in the tech / entrepreneurial venue.

But this piece perfectly illustrates a common problem among successful tech entrepreneurs. You've not only assumed that a problem you struggle with is universal, you've also assumed that your success and expertise within one industry means that you know how to operate within other industries (that you don't know about). Worse still... you assume that you don't need to know anything about the industry to "fix" it. This is VERY common among successful tech entrepreneurs. You've started with the assumption that you KNOW BETTER than the people who are currently operating within the business (despite the fact that you don't know the realities of running such a business). In your case, you also assume that most people running restaurants are morons (because if they were not, they'd obviously be running their businesses as if they were tech start-ups).

This combination of myopic narcissism, arrogance and ignorance has gotten a LOT of entrepreneurs and investors in a LOT of trouble in the past.

Might I suggest that you should: 1) learn about the food service business (perhaps you could assume that successful food service professionals are not idiots to start?), 2) test your assumption that there are a reasonable number of people who share your problem

Final Note: tech entrepreneurs and investors - I'd suggest looking at this as a good illustration of a condition that we should all avoid.

1) I've been a customer of restaurants for far longer than I've been a tech entrepreneur.

2) I've been an investor in over 20 food-tech based Startups. I'm not clueless about the industry.

3) I come from middle-class (or lower-class!) america -- Appalachia, to be exact -- and my opinions are not based exclusively on either fast food restaurants nor high-class ones, but rather all of the above.

you're welcome to your own opinion, but I'm hardly I'll-informed about the industry, from either customer or operator perspective.

Being a customer of restaurants and being an investor in food tech start-ups is not the same as understanding operating a food service business.

That logic is similar to the logic of people who say, "I love cooking, I'll open a restaurant." (which, by the way, is one of the major causes of the high rate of infant restaurant mortality).

"I love programming, I'll open(start) a web company" (which, by the way, is one of the major causes of the high rate of infant webstartup mortality) and I think that is perfectly fine.

look dude, i get your argument, but again i'm not friggin retarded about an industry i've spent a half-decade investing in/around, and in fact made my first restaurant investment over 10 years ago.

get off your high horse, i've got a clue and my extended family has been involved in food service businesses since the great depression.

no point feeding trolls Dave. Good luck with your investment, as I said in a comment below I know one of your competitors very well and it is a very competitive market to try and crack. Good luck to you both.

I suppose this depends on the type of restaurant. You're never going to see a picture on the menu of a high end restaurant. In the same way that people equate a screw top with bad wine (even though it's about 10 times better of a technology than a cork) people will always equate pictures on a menu with Olive Garden type restaurants.

Also the really good restaurants base their menu on what's fresh that day, so pictures wouldn't be practical.

And I think that people who are intimidated by the lack of pictures on a menu tend to mostly dine at the places that have them.

I absolutely agree with you here. Also I would like to note that having a single tablet for let's say 4-6 guests is impractical and will take lot more time to order vs having a paper menu for each of them.

Very true. At Per Se you order wine off a tablet, which works because a table tends to order 1 bottle at a time.

I tend to agree, but digital pics could easily be updated for whatever was fresh. Just take the pic that morning and put it in the system.

Thinking about it, I bet there's a way to use pics effectively even in a high end place. Sell the chef with the pics, or better yet, sell the prep process. The extraordinary cooking process, etc.

In the end, though, you're right. High end is about the experience and you want that personal touch.

Virtually everything he complains about - the broad range of choice, unfamiliar items, long periods of time spent without electronic distractions, semi-forced interactions with people - are what most would consider positive aspects of fine dining. As others have said, there are other establishments that show you pictures of a limited range of familiar items and that slam them out in a short period of time - they're called "fast food."

Suggested followups: "Nightclubs: they suck because they're loud, dark and full of drunken horny young people" and "Concerts: how MP3 players could disrupt live music by playing every piece consistently without the bother of having to go to a live music venue".

>> unfamiliar items >> semi-forced interactions with people >> long periods of time spent without "electronic distractions" -- ie, the ability to pay when i want, and call a waiter when i want

so just to confirm here -- you really think that's what people like about high-end restaurants? they enjoy unfamiliarity? they enjoy forced interactions? they like to not be able to pay when they want?

if so, please remind me to never put you in charge of customer service or marketing at any of our companies.

seriously: i party down with people at nightclubs and concerts regularly, but waiting in line or getting shitty customer service is never what i equate with the best parts of those experiences.

Working in products for hospitality, one of the hardest things to get right is staffing, especially in peak times.

Having a consistent product is also important when trying to grow a business (especially pubs and restaurants) and I can see hoe something like this would improve the experience for customers, if used well.

This has been done to a degree, and it failed pretty quickly, faster than most. uWink opened a restaurant in Mountain View with tablets for ordering food and playing games while you wait.

The tablets had menu items complete with photos, reviews, and it took about 15 minutes for the food to arrive to your table. Typically the waitstaff would only bring you your drinks and food. The Mountain View location of uWink was open for less than a year.. about 9 months, so you can all guess how well that went. Most restaurants, even terrible ones, managed to stay open for more than that!


It wasn't tablets, it was 20-inch LCD monitors with sensors. That were in your face. To the point where if you wanted to talk to your lunch buddy, both of you had to lean to see each other's faces.

Check out Siam Fine Dining in Palo Alto that runs E La Carte tablets on their tables. Very quiet and refined experience.

yes, because 1 company/restaurant failed...no other will ever succeed. Thanks for your ever so brilliant wisdom.


and the world needs like, maybe 5 computers total.

Problem#3 is not really I problem for me at least. When i go eat in a restaurant I am usually in company, so I do not want to hurry with order, eat, pay and go. I want to enjoy conversation, food and take an easy time. I also think that many choices on the menus are fine.

But i would definitely NOT want the restaurant to have a profile of me.

"Problem #3: Have to Wait FOREVER for Waiter to Order, Re-Order, & Pay. Also, Nothing To Do While I’m Waiting."

This is pretty straightforward. If you're in a huge time crunch, order delivery. I'm not sure what it's like in the bay area, but here in Chicago you can order something from grubhub with very little friction.

One of my personal pet peeves is the arrival of the waiter halfway through to ask "how are things here." It's just a pointless ritual, and annoys the crap out of me. I rarely have complaints, or additional requests, and I'll catch their eye if I do.

So this ritual isn't there to annoy you. Sorry that it does. Waiters do because it saves the restaurant money and because not doing so can cost them money.

Huh? How so?

Let me explain. My apologies in advance if you already know this. Checking on your table is called a food check and usually happens a few minutes after your food is delivered. It's to make sure you got everything your ordered, the meat is cooked to your liking, all you sides are there, the stuff you are allergic to isn't on there, etc...


Here's two example scenarios:

1. The wait staff does a food check and finds a problem which they can fix. If they did not fix it, odds are you won't come back. If you don't come back, the restaurant loses future revenue plus gets bad word of mouth that further reduces revenue. An unfixed problem meal means lower waiter tips too.

2. The waiter doesn't do a food check. Unscrupulous guests will eat almost all their meal and then complain to the manager. The manager often will give the meal away. Because the waiter didn't do a food check, some restaurants will take the cost of the meal out of the waiter's tips.

There's a even worst scenario with food allergies and lack of food checks where people can go the hospital. Hopefully it now makes sense why the ritual is there.

I kind of understand that, and its specifically that its a "ritual" that annoys me. I find I appreciate wait staff who keep it to a minimum.

Having lived in countries where they never do this proactively I can tell you be careful what you wish for.

I read through Dave's blog and through all of the comments here and I find this very funny. Dave is right, Food is huge and is only getting bigger. I have worked with restaurants for 5+ years now, specifically in technology, and both restaurants and consumers want to see this industry evolve and there is not going to be just one solution that solves all of its problems. To people who are saying they do not want screens on their tables, then do not use them, but I will argue you are in the minority. The high-end restaurants that would go on for an anniversary dinner or take a big client out will probably not have that because you pay for attentive service. However, for the fast-casual restaurant space, which is the fast growing, people don't expect that level attention from servers and why it makes sense to integrate virtual order, user history, reviews, etc. This stuff is coming and it will be better for everyone, including restaurants, because they will receive more information about their customers and can start making better business decisions like what menu items to keep or get rid of.

The restaurant industry is just very slow to adapt, generally speaking, because the people that run them have not grown up in the age of technology and are focused on the operations. As more new restaurant owners come, this will change and the opportunities in food tech will grow larger.

Great article Dave.


Dave - one thing I know I personally struggle with when implementing new technologies for the restaurant industry is POS integration. More specifically getting the big companies like Aloha to allow me to integrate. What are your thoughts on this as well creating a more 'open' platform POS?

One other thing I thought you missed in your article was the trend towards quicker service, specifically for lunch. I have seen a substantial investment from restaurants to build more drive-throughs, increase delivery, etc. What are your thoughts on this trend and using tech to enhance?

pshah88 I've been looking into this, and we found a group out of Calgary called eThor that are working on developing a universal API for restaurant POS.

They have a really interesting solution they're working on that they'll use it with, but I don't think I can say anymore. I do know that they'll be releasing the API to devs and public in the near future.

A few issues:

1) Will implementing these features actually increase profit? This was never addressed.

2) Restaurant revenue does not grow exponentially into the sky like many internet businesses do. There are hard limits on growth. Thus the ROI on measurement (A/B testing) won't be nearly as high.

3) Is a digital ordering system (with all the bells and whistles) something that is high on the priority list of a typical restaurant owner? If not, selling these things will be a chore.

I've worked around the restaurant industry for 10+ years and am a founder of Ordr.in, part of 500S' food portfolio. Digital ordering absolutely increases profitability. Average tickets are higher (estimates are 15-20% higher) and cost of serving the order reduced. Plus online orders smooth out and extend demand. I.e. serve more customers without adding fixed cost. Restaurants are just beginning to adopt online and digital tabletop ordering. Not only is online ordering profitable (though I don't think there is a one-size-fits-all solution) but customers are demanding it. This year 40% of diners will order online at least once (up from 13% 5 years ago). If merchants don't lead, customers will.

great to see u jump in david :)

1) yes. proven already at 100's of restaurants using E la Carte PrestoTablet systems. immediately positive economics. also reduced turnover time, so more available spots for additional customers.

2) there's plenty of inefficient market to address... literally hundreds of millions if not billions of customers. certainly millions of restaurant.

3) absolutely. and should be higher on priority, if they only knew how much money they would save / make.

again, we put our money where our mouths are. check out http://elacarte.com if you don't believe me.

I'm a restaurateur, and a big fan of dmc, I enjoyed his take, but...

I've sketched out probably every idea Dave has illustrated here, and most of them don't make it far enough to even bust out an MVP. I have the advantage of a massive network of restaurant owners, from high end to QSR (quick service restaurant), and an even bigger network of hospitality staff. They chew on them, and spit them up.

It's not that it's impossible, and paradigm shifts in how the business is done is something I've pursued my whole life, but it takes a tremendous effort, and a retraining of your customers. Friction.

My operations were fine dining, casual wine bars, and nightclub/lounges. Exceptional experiences are the highest pursuit, and every problem DMC has an issue with would never exist in one of our operations. It's just a competent operator, well trained staff, and proper systems.

Some of the QSR chains I've worked with could use some help from tech, but the customer at a QSR is looking for less customer friction, not more.

I'd love to sit down with DMC sometime and give him some insight on where the real opportunities are in the space. He's right, it's a prime target for disruption, but not in the way he's thinking right now.

But having a competent operator and well trained staff would be the problem that most restaurants have wouldnt you say?

Being a good operator yourself, this product may not be useful, but could be for someone else?

happy to chat... ping me @davemcclure.

if it's really the case that none of your staff at all of your nightclubs / restaurants have these issues, them I'll eat my shorts & buy you a beer (either way, I'll buy u a beer in fact ;)

certainly it's been my experience that technology used to improve efficiency may not always be appropriately / perfect, but in MANY use cases where I've had to wait or choose from confusing menus, I can't imagine how it wouldn't help.

however, I'm open to hearing why I'm wrong if you have data to back it up.

Awesome Dave,

I've reread your blog post a few times to make sure I've got a real sense of the pains you're talking about. You've got one of our early favorites in there too, I'll tell you how alpha testing went with it.

Pinged you with @fourmojo.

Here are some thoughts, tear me up :D


I can see some advantages in what the author says, but I don't think the tech industry is a particularly good metaphor - for example, suggesting high-quality pictures of food will convert better. I've not ever been involved in the business end of a restaurant, but I've eaten in a few, and I can't believe that "converting" people who are reading a menu into people who have chosen something is actually a big problem - 99.5% of customers surely manage that one way or another.

Similarly, I'm not sure that providing reviews is obviously a good thing for a restaurateur - they hardly want to show you negative reviews of their dishes, and if they only show the positive ones it's obviously useless. I sort of see what he means about people saying when things suck, but surely if the restaurant knows one of their dishes is crap they'd be better off fixing or removing it than showing it with poor reviews.

As a 20 year veteran of the restaurant business and Founder of Tripleseat,a CRM and Event Management web app for the restaurant's Private Dining business with 500+ customers let me add my 2 cents on the challenges on making Dave's ideas to work in the restaurant business. 1) Pictures on menu's-Menu's change constantly because of food costs and trends. To have a new photo taken every time you make a menu change is too time consuming. Also, you don't want a crappy picture of your food on the menu and that means professional photographers and that means added costs.

2) Electronic Menu's etc-Good idea in theory, does not work (yet) in the real world. #1 and #1A reason restaurants won't do it is because of theft and breakage. To replace an iPad or whatever is too costly (sensing a theme here?)

3) CRM system that knows who you are and what you have ordered have been around forever BUT the Server who has 6 tables (and impatient customers) will not take the time to review it. It is not a problem technology can fix IMO

4) Technology to entertain the customer is called TV and Bartender (Sorry about being snarky)

It has been my experience that a majority of restaurant Owners and Operators will not invest in any technology (outside a POS) unless there is a proven, hard, ROI. These buyers, by their very nature, are pragmatic buyers that measure their money in nickels. Unless your technology widget can show them a fast ROI and make them more money they are going to pass

I do not want to interact with more technology in a restaurant, but I do think restaurants tend to have stunningly bad websites.

Most restaurants have either 1) a giant PDF or 2) a crazy interactive Flash experience. (Would you like to build an animated pizza? Would you like a Taylor Swift CD with your pizza?)

When I come to a restaurant's site, I want to see this: 1) Location and hours 2) HTML menu with pictures

This could all be on one page.

If there's an online ordering process, it should be fast and remember my favorite choices. That's about it.

Here's the key:

A successful restaurant owner cultivates the ambiance of their venture--from the table layout to the color and texture of napkins, from the lighting to the type of door handles, they likely have an opinion and a firm belief that they are there to curate and create an experience for their patrons.

The problem is that these instincts--typically correct in the physical world!--lead to website design input that goes against the conventions of the virtual world.

Thus, a restaurant website will be needlessly animated, or sing music to you, or do any of those other things that we all dislike in our pages, all with the good intention of providing ambiance.

Why is flash automatically seen as bad? When done right it is a seamless experience that only the most technical could possibly take issue with. I, for one, enjoy papa john's interactive pizza order menu.

It isn't always bad, but it's definitely slower than text and images. My purpose in ordering a pizza is to order a pizza. When I'm doing a task, I don't want fun animations; I want to finish quickly. What do you have, what does it look like, what does it cost? Pick, pay, done.

Ordering a pizza is not part of the evening's entertainment; eating a pizza is.

Few (inconsistent) thoughts on this. As usual I think DMC is right on most of this, however I wonder if the average Joe is keen on logging in to a restaurant for the benefit of customized menus. I like that idea, personally, but then I don't have a shit-fit every time something happens on Facebook that brings the privacy folks out - I understand the trade-off I make for free goods. Jury's out though on how many folks will do this, and therefore how much benefit it is to the restaurant compared to how much overhead/effort is involved.

The other thought I have with this is that it's typical of a lot of problems startups are tackling right now where the information (menus) is the type of information that needs to be free and everywhere, but the startups' monetization strategies are based on locking in that information in order to lock the customer into paying.

Anecdote signifying nothing: had coffee the other day with someone at a place that served food by having people log in on ipads, choose their item, order, pay then it was ready for them at the counter. I just wanted to look up, see a board with items on it, tell a polite person behind the counter my order and wait with my coffee for food. I didn't order.

Actually, I like menus with lots of choices. It would be nice to have more pictures, though.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitchen_Confidential talks about refrigerator space and other constraints common to modern restaurants. Whenever you order that chicken that's on the menu together with shrimp, lobster, steak, ground beef, pork chop, pork loin, tuna, turkey, salmon, tilapia, etc., you risk ordering something that's been re-frozen multiple times, stuck in the back of the fridge (the more exotic it is, the higher the chances are that it's been there for a while, alligator kebabs and ostrich burger patties least likely to be fresh), and handled multiple times by line cook's hands while he reaches into the fridge to retrieve stuff for other customers.

Just to clarify, it sounds like you're suggesting that a larger menu will have less-fresh food. That makes intuitive sense but confused me at first.

Yeah, sorry about the verbosity.

What works to give a lot of variety is in a place like most chinese restaurants, where there are N things prepared M ways and you can get any of NxM dishes.

this is really against what most restaurants should try to do. I'd rather have a place make 10 dishes very high quality than 50 ok dishes. With a large menu its very hard to provide quality and consistency.

Is this statement based on your experience working in quality focused restaurants?

this is my experience from working in many restaurants (not as a cook) along with being a foodie. While food tastes differ and is subjective, all you'd have to do is compare the best restaurants menu with a food buffet.

There are hundreds if not thousands of amazing dim sum restaurants in Hong Kong and Saigon that prove you wrong.

Beyond that.... as a former back of the house restaurant employee (10+ years, Cordon Bleu, blah blah) I can tell you that the only time fewer dishes is a guarantee of higher quality is when the staff isn't skilled.

You can go through several lists for the top 50? restaurants in the world will prove you wrong. Not one is chinese and I doubt any serve the traditional dim sum style with the carts rolling around.


I find it pretty common given a list of foods that I like, the one with a good picture is the one I'll most likely order. Having more pictures may or may not benefit the restaurant though...

Use of a few pictures now could lead customers to buy a higher profit item, or an item that is much easier to keep in stock in large amounts.

Use of pictures for all items means that the customer will likely expect the food to the table looks like the item in the picture. This could cause some issues with different cooks or item substitutions.

trustworthy, high-quality pictures lead to conversion.

untrustworthy, high-quality pictures lead to customer dissatisfaction.

regardless of my arguments, i suggest restaurants not lie to people, either by NOT including photos, or including photos of stuff that ISN'T what they're going to get.

I'm surprised by how negative a lot of people are here to new ideas.

A friend runs Menupad. You should check out the demo. Does some cool stuff such as allowing people to get wine recommendations for each dish, organized by the sommelier. That is a big value add for the customer.

Another point is that with health care reforms in the US, wages for waiters will increase, which may tip the balance for restaurants to go the technology option.

I don't think lack of personalization is a big problem. If I have something I like, I generally remember that well enough to order it next time. That fits with the general rule that personalization has a clearer, easier-to-prove benefits for vendors than for purchasers

More information about menu items I haven't ordered before would be great. But for me a list of ingredients would be much more important than a picture.

Check-out efficiency would be wonderful. The same expensive tablet that offers that at every table could probably be used for upsell of desserts and after-dinner beverages, both for impulse-purchase reasons and because restaurants struggle to take those orders at the right time just as they struggle to bring you the check exactly when you want it.

An ETA on next-course arrival would be welcome, just as it is for airplanes. That's another good use for an on-table electronic device.


Anyhow, Dave was calling for a huge redesign in the processes whereby restaurants operate. It's much more reasonable to think of these ideas working at SOME new restaurants than of them working at a large fraction of existing old ones.

All fine except for one thing. Your typical restaurant owner would rather run their business rather than create high quality online content. They typical lack marketing resources.

Menus today are simple / easy / quick to produce. If you want restaurants to move this online plus manage a CRM with their loyal customers preferences, it has to be just as simple, easy and quick as "old school" menus.

I stopped reading after a few paragraphs; it's not necessary to write crappy english to get your point across. Most restaurant owners have neither the resources or knowledge to run as some kind of food startup. This author seems to think that people actually want better technology instead of better food or pricing or service. I can't eat a digital menu.

The restaurant industry divides itself into four classifications - quick serve (Wendys), fast casual (Chipotle), Table Service (Chili's) and Fine Dining (Ruth's Chris). I can see e-menus making headway in Table Service spots where people are usually in more of a hurry, might have kids, and the restaurants don't always have the best servers. I can envision wine menus in Fine Dining locations.

Most restaurants focus on keeping costs low even more than top-line revenues, so my guess is an innovative business model might be needed for a wide deployment. But nothing wrong with a little disruption in this space.

more efficient ordering / reduced turnover time / increased ticket size are good for almost all of the categories above.

while reduced turnover time might not seem to be what Ruth's Chris is looking for, if they're full to capacity, and people are ready to leave/pay sooner, don't you think the people will be happier and the restaurant can seat another customer?

again i'm astonished at how many people think increased efficiency = you have to rush.

nothing could be further from the truth -- it's because service is efficient that you DON'T have to rush.

Inertia and friction will always be a challenge. I would suggest combining the online ordering process (website) with the in house ordering process(menu) by creating a 'second screen' that can be used on a cell phone to display more in depth menu information (pictures, reviews, payment etc) regardless of location. As the approach gains traction introduce iPads into the restaurant. Frankly, with so many large screen phones and iPads already in use it would be great to see an ordering solution that spans local and online customers.

I am surprised by all the pushback here....even for HN! Only explanation I can come up with is that you pimply faced virgins feel better about yourselves because you told off Dave McClure.

Ummmm, congratulations?

On pictures, link from couple months ago http://mashable.com/2012/10/16/instagram-menu/

nice. Tiny Post (nee Tiny Review) was headed that direction at one point...

uff. doesn't this depend hugely on context?

we regularly eat at lomitz which is a traditional chilean/german place, with the same long menu every day. the items are all famous, traditional dishes that everyone knows (i guess for americans this is like my local diner). pictures would be a nuisance except for tourists.

there's a fancy (but more fantasy/preuvian than "authentic") sushi place up in vitacura that we go to for treats. it's frustrating because they use fictional names without descriptions. pictures would look very nice, i'm sure, but not really help you decide. what they need is detailed descriptions (what would be cool is if you could record what you'd had previously, and your rating, so you can work out what to order next time...)

there's a restaurant up the road that's basically french. reading the descriptions is a pleasure. pictures would be chintzy.

another favourite restaurant of mine is down towards italia; it's russian. pictures there would be great because it's never clear exactly what the description means.

each one is different.

yes it does depend on context; probably diff solutions for diff types of restaurants.

that said, can't see how more efficient systems / process would be an inappropriate benefit for almost any of them... even at the high-end, some systems would probably help both customer and restaurant.

I love this idea, and I think most of you will too. Many of you are complaining about ambiance, but how many of you use your cell phones at dinner (be honest). This will enable restauranteurs to turn over a table more quickly, and have fewer wait staff, both of which will mean more profit for them, and lower costs for us. This is a great idea and it WILL happen.

Often when I go to a new restaurant for the food (vs. for a meeting, or because it's a convenient, etc.) I google the restaurant, which usually takes me to a Yelp page, with reviews written by some smart people and some utter morons with axes to grind, and then I end up trying to pick dishes based on that.

"While some smart restaurants do feature a few specials (some even with pictures), most places fail at this very simple (largely offline!) innovation. Fewer items with pictures & more obvious recommendations would streamline production, reduce cost, reduce time for customers to order, for kitchens to prepare, and increase customer satisfaction."

Restaurateurs are actually a far more sophisticated bunch than McClure knows. Decisions about where items are listed, what is bolded, etc. are frequently made with the intent to increase ordering of items with higher margins. The idea that menus are designed without care, or that they a painful source of cost and inefficiency for restaurants, is naive.

"places i visit frequently should give discounts to come back regularly"

Why? If you are already a frequent diner, I have less incentive to give you an outright discount. That said, restaurants frequently reward their most loyal patrons in other ways. If you are a regular and need a last minute reservation on a Friday night, chances are you'll be accommodated if at all possible.

"places i visit infrequently should give discounts to try them once or twice"

Discounting to get customers through the door isn't always a bad idea, but as many less experienced restaurant owners have learned the hard way from services like Groupon, it's difficult to build a profitable customer base by targeting people who are only interested in trying your food because they're saving a buck or two.

"while waiting/eating, i might enjoy music, movies, games, or other media"

There are plenty of restaurants that provide entertainment (live music, televised sports events). If McClure wants someone to baby sit him, however, there are better options than a restaurant.

"First, it would be great if the restaurant knew something about my order history and user profile data, and customized the menu selection to my favorite tastes and interests. Obviously if i’m a vegetarian or a person with special dietary constraints, it would be a high priority to match food options with my specific lifestyle choices or health needs. This would again streamline choice, reduce time & confusion, and increase customer satisfaction. Also, new dishes could be recommended that i might like to try for the first time."

A good restaurant is rarely defined solely by its food. It is defined in part by the experience it offers. A properly-trained waiter is not only more likely to be able to provide satisfactory recommendations, he or she will be able to do so via a human interaction that makes the dining experience more enjoyable.

It seems that McClure's vision for what a restaurant should be is everything that a good restaurant isn't. He's in a rush, doesn't like making decisions, can't do research on his own, wants to minimize interaction with restaurant staff, is afraid to ask questions, prefers external entertainment to the enjoyment that comes from eating a good meal with company, etc. Instead of investing in a space that he appears to know little about, however, I'd simply suggest that he stop by the drive-thru at the nearest McDonald's the next time he's hungry. I think he'll find it to be everything he dreams of, and perhaps it'll even exceed his expectations.

>> "He's in a rush, doesn't like making decisions, can't do research on his own, wants to minimize interaction with restaurant staff, is afraid to ask questions"

i think you just described: 1) most moms, 2) most people who work day jobs, and 3) most people who are first-time visitors at restaurants.

in other words, you just described... most people.

so while i appreciate your right to your own dining experience, assuming there isn't a huge effing market with those needs is an extremely narrow view of the dining universe.

regardless, you're welcome to bet your own money on snooty, unresponsive, offline dining experiences with menus that are confusing and non-illustrative.

meanwhile, i'll bet our fund on the other kind, that everyone else in middle america (& the rest of the world) might appreciate.

Mistook the E La Cart logo as Fla Cart.

I usually just look at yelp/chowhound on my phone for pictures and recommendations while checking out the menu.

one thing that really bothers me and u havnt mentioned: foods should have calories written ffs!

I need a super cold beer....

all restaurants should be mcdonalds!

uh no, kindly fuck off.

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