My Turn: Dehumanizing hospitality one burger at a time

For the Monitor
Published: 7/6/2019 11:00:07 PM

I first encountered the counterintuitive concept of minimizing human contact in the hospitality industry last summer at the Newark, N.J., airport. I sat at a table in an airport restaurant for about 10 minutes before I could finally hail a uniformed person. “When might someone be able to take my order?” I inquired. “Oh, we can’t take orders,” the waitress replied.

“You order and pay on that,” she pointed to a tablet on the table that had somehow escaped my attention.

Hmmm, I wondered as she walked away. Wait staff who can’t take orders. What’s next? Valets who can’t park cars?

But, the more I thought about it, the less the substitution of tablets for waiters at the airport restaurant bothered me. People don’t typically enjoy leisurely meals in airport restaurants. We tend to be in a rush. So, being able to order immediately when you sit down makes abundant sense. But, just because we have the technology does not mean we should use it in every circumstance.

I arrived at my hotel in New Orleans for a convention last week in the wee hours of Thursday morning, only three hours later than expected, thanks to American. How elated my stomach was to learn that “The Pantry” grill and store was still open! I ventured across the hotel lobby to forage for food.

I was the only person happy to be at “The Pantry” at 12:30 a.m. The cashier sat at her register, gaping at her phone. A lone customer peered over prepackaged salads, an expression of mild disgust visible in her profile. The cook stood at a counter, staring grimly out over the store without appearing to see me. A menu written on the wall hanging over him contained the cure for what ailed me – a bacon cheeseburger. I smiled and approached.

“Hi!” I greeted him. “I’d like a….”

“You don’t order here,” he interrupted me. “You use one of those.” He pointed to three (3) machines resembling ATMs to my left.

I looked around. The sole other customer had left, having either grudgingly selected a salad or given up. The cashier, presumably, remained at her station around the corner. The cook and I faced each other, the only people in sight.

“You mean I can’t just tell you what I want?” I asked, still smiling.

“No,” he said. “You have to order using the kiosks.”

“Wow!” I thought. “This is surreal. I have to tell the machine that I want a bacon cheeseburger, so the machine can tell him.” I don’t get upset with employees, though. They are only following the policies that management has set. I nodded my understanding to the cook and moved dutifully to the kiosk.

Upon examining my options on the display screen, the icon labeled “Held Between the Hands” seemed the most appropriate choice. I pressed it. Voila! An image of a bacon cheeseburger appeared, amongst images of other sandwiches. “Almost there,” I muttered, and clicked on the image.

At this point, unfortunately, the selection process became less intuitive. Images of bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onions appeared on the screen. I wanted all of them. “How do I tell the computer this?” I wondered. “Do I push the DONE button, or do I click on each of the items?” I glanced over to where the cook had been stationed, but he had disappeared.

As I wrestled with my quandary, the cashier rounded the corner and saw I needed assistance. “Can I help you?” she asked. “Yes!” I gratefully replied. “If I want everything displayed here on my bacon cheeseburger,” I gestured to the kiosk’s display screen, “do I hit DONE or should I click on each item?” “Oh, you just hit done,” she said. “Done !” I grinned at her, tapping the button as instructed.

The cashier and I were still standing by the kiosk seconds later when the cook suddenly reappeared, emerging from behind the grill. “Hey!” he barked at me. “Is this right? You just want a burger? With nothing on it?!?”

“No,” I said. “I want everything on it.”

“You have to click on each item that you want,” he explained.

“Really?” the cashier interjected. “I thought you only clicked on an item if you didn’t want it. It looks that way…,” she trailed off.

“No,” the cook said definitively. “So,” he looked at me, “you want bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato and onions on the burger?”

“You got it,” I replied, thinking how much closer I would have been to devouring that burger if he and I had had that conversation 5 minutes earlier and technology had not gotten in the way.

(Benjamin T. King is a Concord resident and a partner in the Concord law firm Douglas, Leonard & Garvey, P.C.)

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