Automat, 977 Eighth Avenue, Manhattan.

Digital ID: 482752. Abbott, Berenice -- Photographer. February 10, 1936 Notes: Code: III.C.1. Man takes pie out of Automat, stone counters and walls below metal and glass display. Source: Changing New York / Berenice Abbott. (more info) Repository: The New York Public Library. Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. See more information about this image and others at NYPL Digital Gallery. Persistent URL: digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?482752

It is Valentine’s Day weekend and a lot of people (including myself) will be taking loved ones to restaurants. When I was young, I worked at a restaurant that had phones on all the tables. There were no waiters – when the customer was ready to order, they would pick up the phone and it would ring in the kitchen. A cook would answer the phone, write down the order, and cook it. When the food was ready, the cook would ring the phone on the table – and the customer would go pick up the order at the front desk, and pay.

I think it would be cool to experiment with some new (and old) models  for running restaurants. I don’t think anything is particularly wrong with current restaurants, I just have a habit of rethinking current ways of doing things.

Below are a few ”what if” thoughts I have when I visit restaurants:

Automats

Automats, where people could go and buy food from what was essentially a gigantic vending machine wall have declined and almost disappeared since the 1950s. As the US interstate system was developed suburbs grew massively out of this massive government action – and the dense urban population that used these restaurants declined. I still wonder why there are not more of these in densely populated cities. Although the personal touch is certainly reduced, the cost and efficiency could make up for that in some instances. With newer technologies and better foods, I would think that super high-tech automats could be created today that would be much better than those that existed in the 50s.

Hub restaurant

A ”hub restaurant” would be a restaurant that served food from other restaurants. For example, the customer would walk into the restaurant and they would have some basic drinks and peanuts or other simple snack-type appetizers. It would not have a kitchen. Instead, it would have a group of ”runners” in place of a kitchen. The customer would have a large menu with items from restaurants that are physically around the restaurant – let’s say within 5 miles. This would be a pretty diverse menu. The customer would still have a waiter/waitress and would still order from them. The customer would get drinks and snacks and could put in their order for a meal. The orders would then be phoned in as pick-up orders at other restaurants and then given to the ”runners” who would go pick them up. The customers would have a restaurant experience, but they would be able to order many different types of food – Italian, burgers, Chinese – all at the same restaurant.

Digital menus

By putting menus on a server, and also allowing orders to be digitally automated, restaurants could take orders via mobile phone. They could also have digital touch menus on all the tables that would allow the menu to be read and allow orders to be made inside the menu via touch. When not in use as a menu, these digital menus could have a browser to surf the web and could have some games built in as well.

Conveyor belts

Sushi restaurants use conveyor belts to allow people to sit down and quickly grab food off the belt and eat. The bill is based on number of plates. What if other types of restaurants used conveyor belts for different types of foods? Special plates could be built using warming elements powered by their proximity to the belt to keep all food items warm (through resonant induction charging). The plates could also be built with RFID built in so that the waiter or waitress could simply scan them to bill you. The plate would know the price of what is on it. The customer would pick up a chicken fried steak plate, a mashed potatoes plate, and a green beans plate. Each would know its price and would tell the table what the bill is. The table itself could sense what plates are sitting on it and tally a bill in real time as you pick items off the belt and put them on the table. I don’t think that this would work in all circumstances, but it could work in situations when the restaurant has a big crowd that is in a hurry (like for lunches).

Mobile restaurant

A restaurant could be built that fits on the back of a tractor trailer. It would drive around town and stop at specified locations to bring on new customers and let off others. It would be a big tractor trailer (with great suspension) that would have a kitchen and rows of tables along the sides. The sides of the trailer would be large windows. The routes would be chosen to maximize great views. Plus, it would stop at scenic points to sit for a while to allow people to eat and enjoy the scenery. Eating at the mobile restaurant would feature a different view every night. This might be especially good for visitors to big cities that would like to see all the sites and get dinner at the same time.