Why Doesn’t the U.S. Care About Convenience?

For a number of years I’ve been impressed with the wireless credit-card machines with which many European restaurants equip their wait-staff.

This substitution saves workers time (and also that of their customers). This technology is now adopted more widely in the U.S.

But on this trip I’ve noticed yet another innovation.

In several restaurants wait-staff have wireless devices that also allow them to punch in the customer’s order and send it directly to the kitchen — again saving labor time (walking back to the kitchen) and cutting costs.

Why is this device less prevalent in the U.S.? My guess is that it’s because labor costs are higher in Europe, so there’s a greater incentive for European restaurants to make this capital-labor substitution than for American restaurants.


In London you tend to find the electronic order pads in the places that specialize in faster service - they sit you wherever you can find a space, you eat and then leave - as the customers demand it as much as the restaurants themselves.
The mobile card terminals are there as the card issuers now require that you do not let the card out of your sight, if you do they can refuse you fraud protection. Since the wireless card reading software now ships with most EFTPOS installations it is a very small add-on for most retailers to add the card readers and far fewer people running away rather than queuing to pay their bill!


23. In Japan, especially in high traffic areas like railway stations, you place your order through a machine at the entrance to the restaurant. Payment and change are made up front and a receipt given. The bar coded receipt is taken by the server when they bring your meal. Not very personal, but it's a step up from fast food service.


This isn't particularly new, either.

Wagamama (mentioned above in comments) has been using that technology since at least 2001, when I saw it in action in London.


The wireless order-taking device would prevent transcription errors between what the waitstaff wrote down and what they actually enter into the station computer (which I assume functions both to give the order to the kitchen and prepare the bill).

That could be a big savings in error reduction. If the waitstaff used the "write-down, read-back" method used to prevent medical errors, it would further reduce error cost. Error cost would include both losing money in having to re-prepare and/or comp a patron for a meal error AND the cost of losing frustrated patrons and tips. That should be an incentive to the waitstaff to learn well and use their wireless devices.

As much waitstaff is young and now used to texting and Blackberries, I think this technology will likely spread. But the cost of the system must be accounted for. I see it more likely in chain restaurants than being adopted by single-location restaurants.

Using write-down, read-back alone would save error cost.

Having the wireless cashier unit makes me wonder about the security in those devices walking off with unethical employees and/or theft.



The US doesn't care about convenience? Try having to buy something from the grocery store at 11pm or on a Sunday in Europe and come back to me on that.


A restaurant in Chicago we frequent uses a wireless ordering system. There were some hiccups when they first implemented it, but it seems to work fine now.

I don't think the technology could be too outrageously expensive, as this restaurant is just a little neighborhood place.


I think labor costs definitely plays a role. The minimum wage for tipped employees is much less than minimum wage. When I worked in the restaurants, I saw a number of tasks pushed onto the wait staff that could have been done more effeciently timewiese in other ways because the wait staff was so cheap.

TGI Friday's was the exception. They seemed to take the veiw that customer service was more important than the small cost savings tried to make sure the wait staff was free to give high quality service to their customers.


If you pay waiters out of your pocket, additional waiters cost additional money. If your customers pay the waiters via tips, extra waiters cost you almost nothing. In countries where tipping is prevalent, wouldn't you just get more "free" waiters rather than spending thousands of dollars on electronic equipment?

Charles D

This is a counter to the normal thoughts of immigration, but is this a hat tip to cheap immigrant labor preventing the US from integrating better technology?

It certainly is an interesting thought.


After several month long stints in Norway on business, I found myself disliking the wireless card readers immensely. After enjoying a nice meal in a fancy restaurant, it felt jarring to pull out a little key pad an start swiping, calculating and printing right at the table.


You misunderstand the purpose of the wireless credit card machines: to reduce fraud. In Europe and elsewhere, they use "chip and pin" cards, where to use your card, you enter a PIN code in lieau of singing a form. The card is never supposed to leave the customer's sight. The staff bring wireless readers to you.

As for the wireless order-taking systems: where in Europe do you see this? I live in the UK, and in the past year have travelled around England, Scotland, Italy, and France. I think I've only seen wireless order-taking systems in a couple of restaurants.

I think there are other factors that might encourage the use of this beyond employment costs: whether the employees are likely to not charge/undercharge/overcharge for meals, or maybe whether some factor (e.g. due to hugh ratio of migrant workers as employees who are less fluent in the language) makes technology to prevent mistakes in the order worthwhile.



in most restaurants the floor staff punch their orders into a station and the kitchen staff get a printout at their station.

waiters always have to return to their station for supplies anyways (you can't wireless transmit cutlery yet), so transmitting the order from the floor to the kitchen vs. from the waiter's station isn't a huge labour saver.

Rob M

If anything, I think we Americans are too wedded to convenience. But I suppose that's another discussion.

The biggest problem I see is that those swipable credit cards are a huge security risk. From a technical standpoint, the authorization (if any) is all wrong and done at the Point Of Sale. Instead the authorization should be done at the server. This is akin to locking the gates at the road but leaving the houses behind the gates all unlocked.

The result is that I could walk around with a device in a backpack in a crowd of people (Subway, concert, airport, football game, etc) stealing micro payments of 1 or 2 dollars at a time. Most people won't check and of those that do, most people won't dispute a dollar. If I come in contact with 1500 people over the 5 days I take the subway/bus to work, I've got a pretty handy little side business.




Depends on what kind of restaurants. Most places do not "walk back" to the kitchen. Maybe at a Waffle House, yes. But if you go to an Applebees or the likes, they usually have what they call POS systems which stand for "point of sale" or "piece of ...." depending on how you like it. They punch up the order there after they write it up on the pad they have, and in the kitchen a ticket comes up.

So the only time savings is between writing it down on a pad and walking to a POS. The question is whether wireless POS systems cost less than stationary POS systems.


I still remember my first experience with this. At the beginning of taking the order, the waiter asked what we wanted to drink. And then our drinks arrive while we were still ordering our meals. I was amazed...


Actually, the wireless credit card machines aren't about convenience. Most European credit cards don't use signatures any more -- a PIN is required instead. And you can't really expect diners to get up out of their seats to go to the front of house, just to enter their PINs on a machine there. (OK, that's convenience, I guess, but still.) So the waitstaff brings a PIN pad instead. And the culture was always that you signed the slip under the gaze of the waitstaff so that they could check the signature -- now they just hang around while you enter the PIN instead.


This happens is some Korean and Hong Kong restaurants, which are hardly considered places with high labor costs.


While at a restaurant in San Francisco, I noticed that they were using the wireless order entry system. Our waiter was at another table, and we called him over to order a salad. However, we weren't loaded into his device at the time, and in the time it took him to switch over to our table and prepare to enter our order, he had forgotten what type of salad we wanted. Maybe there is a cost to technology, or maybe he was just at the end of a long shift. Either way, I don't find myself convinced that the service industry will be much improved by technology.


How much time DOES that really save?

As someone who worked in the food service industry in the past, things operate on a loop. You check your tables, take orders, go into the kitchen to check order status/place new ones, serve food (if there was no runner), and repeat. It wasn't very time consuming to place the order with the kitchen, computer terminal, etc that they had in place.

I think this has more to do with cost. Does buying one of those things for the max servers you would have on during a busy day, plus a few for backup - really create more revenue for the restaurant?

I'm all for implementing technology where it makes sense, but the cost/benefit of this implementation doesn't make sense for the restaurant and, ultimately, the consumer (who would have to pay for the costs with an increase of $1.50 on the cost of the Moons Over My Hammy)

James Riddlesperger

It seems to me that this is particularly true with table servers, who in the US are almost free (usually 2.something an hour), but who in Europe are much less dependent on tips.