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Common Foodsense: Send in the Robots

On the beautiful sunny shores of tropical Ely, Minnesota, there was a wind in late June that reached 80 miles per hour and knocked down a lot of trees. If you
paddle the local lakes, you’ll see many of the trees who chose to live too close to the shore—nice view, cool breezes, all that—are now either in the water or tipped back away from it and immodestly exposing their roots to public view.

Never one to pass by a tacky metaphor (especially when I’m past deadline and my editor is gnashing her teeth) I was thinking about the foodservice industry and its ability to withstand disaster. 

We are in the business experience natural disasters just like anyone else. Floods, fires, hurricanes and rains of frogs affect everyone the same way, though we’re better positioned to turn a profit on the frogs than most. Preparation is well understood; it involves adequate insurance, hardening infrastructure, good staff training and laying in a supply of nets.

Man-made disasters are different. They don’t have a prescribed set of responses, and one cannot always do much in advance. They tend to be one-offs: the collapse of the banking industry, Prohibition, $15 an hour for tipped employees, World War I, reality television. Those caught by them are left to struggle through as best they can, and they have to invent their own ways out of the mess.

One such method arrived in my inbox today, courtesy of a publicist with good timing. There is an enterprise in St. Paul called Can Can Wonderland, which during its remodeling is installing a beer wall—a self-service dispensing system from a company called iPourit (truly, look it up). Now, St. Paul has yet to join its sister city in mandating a $15 minimum wage for tipped employees, but the mayor has endorsed this folly and the outlook—both for those employees and their employers—is grim. And here we see one clear example of how the industry might respond: Can’t afford a human? Automate.

Another might be the revival of the cafeteria. When I first arrived in Minneapolis in the mid-’70s, there was a thriving, kitschy cafeteria called Becky’s near the corner of Hennepin and Franklin. Its workers—all female every time I went—wore long dresses, frilly aprons and headgear somewhere between a cap and a bonnet. It was wildly overdecorated and there were Bibles everywhere; they were unabashedly trying to minister to both your stomach and your soul. Still, the place became a hangout for those jaded, arty Guthrie actors from down the street. It was, after all, quite theatrical—and the food was fabulous.

And as anyone who has watched the evolution of corporate cafeterias can attest, table service is not a prerequisite for food quality. I used to tell my students that once they got the rock-and-roll out of their systems, started families and gave up on the Food Network, they could have a nice life and make excellent product working for a corporate feeder. These businesses are just the latest evolution of the kitchen in the ducal manor house, where you always had decent raw materials—the duke was rich, after all, and wanted himself and his minions to be well fed. Nowadays you get health benefits and probably won’t be horsewhipped for burning the scones.

Both of these approaches to the problem, you’ll note, do not involve the services of servers. Or bartenders.

Where the tasks of tipped employees are essential to the business and not able to be automated, a simple solution offers itself: eliminate tipping. This can be done with what we will call the Travail format, where there is no distinction between servers and cooks, or with the more traditional service charge. The latter, of course, is not popular in this country—neither with servers nor customers—but customers may gradually come around, if the story is properly told. As for servers, we may see a gradual shift away from the on-my-way-to-better-things cohort and toward one which regards it as a profession. A reasonable immigration policy would probably take care of that. Oops, another man-made disaster. Never mind. Bring on the robots. 

Jonathan Locke has more than four decades of experience in the foodservice industry (yes, he’s old). He is the founding chef of FoodSense restaurant consultants, and is a chef-instructor at St. Paul College. He can be reached at foodsense@hotmail.com or 612-236-6463.

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