As technology becomes more deeply embedded in the restaurant industry, the chasm between restaurant service styles will grow. By 2020 service will fall into two categories: served-service and self-service.

Quick-service, fast-casual and lower-end casual-dining eateries will continue to push service duties away from people and onto technological platforms such as kiosks, tabletop devices and tablet computers, while the upper-end restaurants will foster an even more sophisticated and polished hospitality culture.

“Service fulfills a need; hospitality fulfills people,” said Jim Sullivan, chief executive of the consultancy Sullivision.com and a Nation’s Restaurant News columnist. “You can get service from a vending machine or an ATM, but not hospitality.”

In fact, Sullivan said studies indicate diners today put less value on hospitality than they once did. They describe good service as the “absence of complaints,” and put a premium on speed, accuracy and value.

“Of course, in 2020, like 2013, the value you put on receiving hospitality or service is inversely proportional to the amount of money you spend,” Sullivan said. “A $5 lunch from a quick-serve location today is more dependent on service — speed, value and accuracy — than whether or not the cashier was hospitable while handing you your food. A $50 meal comes with the expectation of hospitality: friendliness, caring, helpfulness, product knowledge and graciousness.”

Service staffs in all restaurant segments will face a greater demand for information from consumers — especially Millennials, said Chris Miller, executive vice president of research firm Sandelman & Associates.

 “They have grown up with instant access through the Web and now in their pockets through smartphones,” Miller said. “I think the expectation is that people will be more able to answer questions about where the food came from or what the flavor profile is like.”

Catering to customization

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And servers at all levels will have to meet the Millennials’ hunger for food customization, Miller added. In Sandelman surveys, 16- to 24-year-old Millennials were more than 40 percent more interested in organic ingredients and almost 20 percent more interested in the availability of vegetarian items than QSR users of all ages.

“With more interest in food sourcing and different options, Millennials will drive higher expectations that employees are knowledgeable,” Miller said.

While QSRs will provide more information, the casual-dining experience will rely more on fun.

“Customer expectations will be that servers will be a part of the fun experience,” Miller said, noting that they will need to display personality to satisfy guests.

Higher-end restaurant servers also will capitalize on tech innovations such as social media for direct consumer engagement, said Paul C. Paz, founder of WaitersWorld.com and co-author of “The Professional Waiter.”

“The entrepreneur waiter can message regulars their schedule for the week to secure reservations in their stations,” Paz said.

Paz predicted that top-performing waiters will take their business with them when they move to new jobs by alerting their customers.

“Social media has opened the door to a new powerful voice that the industry labor pool has never had access to,” he said. “The labor force can now speak up and organize their voice into leveraging resolutions to their issues and changes they seek.”

Most employee training will be offered online, typically on smartphones or computer tablets, rather than in a formal setting, Sullivan said. It will be available in multimedia and with plug-ins for specific tasks. And the modules will be designed for various languages and age groups.

While technology will change training and shift much of the ordering onto customers, servers will never go away, said Sullivan, who added that patrons see tablets and interactive kiosks as more time-efficient and effective.

“In tableside restaurants, food runners or SAs [service assistants] will oversee six [to] eight tables and deliver the entrées, refill beverages and expedite the dining process,” Sullivan predicted. “But most importantly, they’ll re-boot the ordering/payment tablet when necessary.”

Contact Ron Ruggless at ronald.ruggless@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless.