Are server-free restaurants the future of the food industry?


Diggity Drive Up, the new fast-casual concept by the folks who brought you Tavern and Atlas Grill, is out to revolutionize the way we order food. Their method? They're eliminating waitstaff altogether.

Instead of impatiently waiting for your server to return, only to change your mind over what kind of dressing you want with your side salad three times, all food orders will be placed using touch screens, iPhones, or personal tablets.

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After placing and paying for their orders, the machine spits out a ticket with an order number. Customers can then track their food's progress on one of Diggity's monitors or a personal iPhone. When a patron's food is ready, their number is called and the order can be picked up from the counter, which seems to be one of the only times customers will have the opportunity to interact with staff.

When diners order take-out, they'll pull into a designated parking spot, connect to Diggity's wireless, check in, and wait for one of their few paid staff members to bring the order out.

"You can order your food on the way here and [it will be ready] by the time you're here because ticket times are six to eight minutes," managing partner Anoush Ansari says.

Diggity Drive Up's futuristic system, which claims to be the first of its kind, will cut the need for restaurant employees by half, Tim Cary, the managing partner of Hemisphere Restaurant Partners told the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. Sure, the system costs six figures, but Cary says he's certain Diggity Drive Up will make up for lost funds in no time. If the concept is successful, Hemisphere Restaurant Partners will open three additional Diggity locations.

Though the concept is Jetsons-esque, the interior is anything but, harking back to a 1950s drive-in feel. Diggity's food will follow the same theme, with options like hot dogs, hamburgers, and malts, as well as pasta dishes.

"It's very intuitive, very flow friendly. I think customers will be amazed by the atmosphere and amazed by the technology," Cary told the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. "I don't know if anyone will miss the server."

The appeal of the novelty factor is understandable, but the overall concept has frightening implications about the future of food service. Eating, in large part, is a communal activity. Replacing servers with computers promotes a disconnection and increased reliance on hand-held devices, encouraging diners to mess around on their phones instead of engaging with actual, real, live human beings.

And if the concept becomes widespread, where will our workers go? The Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal speculated that the decision to cut tipped staff was made in response to the recent increase in minimum wage, based on Cary's claim that Diggity is "less beholden to labor."

"We didn't say 'Hey, let's come up with this concept so we can cut staff.' At the end of the day, there's only so much you can charge for a certain kind of food. Then after that, you either get people who are not interested in paying your prices because you want to make certain margins or you have to cut somewhere else. We didn't do this because minimum wage went up. We're trying to keep this affordable for our guests."

Still, Ansari added that the minimum wage increase has made it so "tipped employees are making more money than [their] managers."

Let's just hope we don't make Wall-E more of a reality than it already is.

Diggity Drive Up opens on July 17 in Coon Rapids.

Send your story tips to the author, Emily Eveland.