4:06pm

Mon January 17, 2011
All Tech Considered

Chk Plz: Restaurants Try Texting To Speed Service

The menu at Charlie's Kitchen, a dive bar in Cambridge, Mass., might not stand out for its cutting-edge cuisine. But the eatery is at the forefront when it comes to how customers can communicate with the wait staff.

A sticker on the wall of a corner booth says it all: "Can't find your server, just text!"

Charlie's is one of the first restaurants in the country to try TextMyFood, a new service that allows customers to communicate with their server via text messaging.

Five minutes after typing, "I'm at table 3. I want a tossed salad with ranch dressing," a meal arrives at the table.

Check, Please

"There are pros and cons," says Kristina Henry, a server at Charlie's. "It's great for a night like Friday night when we're really busy. It's packed and you're running around [and] people text like, 'Can I have my check please?'"

Even though TextMyFood may make her job easier, Henry says she finds the service impersonal.

"As a server, I would rather want to go to the guest and talk to them face to face and ask them what they would like instead of getting it through a computer," she says.

Still, the technology doesn't replace the server.

"It's not eliminating human contact," says Bob Nilsson, the president of TextMyFood. "There's always a server at the other end. You just want to have that contact sooner. If you can't see them and can't make that contact, rather than waving your arms or getting up, just use the natural communication and let them know what you need."

Nilsson says the goal of the service is to increase the amount of money customers will spend. For example, guests are more likely to order another round of drinks if they text the request in the moment. If they can't find the server, they often pass.

But not everyone at Charlie's Kitchen finds it useful to be able to text requests to their server.

"I guess it seems kind of pointless because I can tell my waitress to her face what I want to drink," says customer Zach Brickett.

Prank Texts

Another customer, John McSweeney, wonders if people will abuse the system.

"It sort of occurred to me to maybe -- just as soon as we ordered our beers -- to take out my phone and be like, 'Beers/stat/now,'" he says.

Prank texting is indeed a problem.

"I've gotten, 'Glasses are sexy.' I've gotten, 'Two of us need something and three of us need your number,'" says Joshua DeCosta, another server at Charlie's Kitchen.

In response, some establishments -- where there's a lot of heavy drinking -- turn off the service after a certain hour. But other managers say they appreciate the ability to monitor guests.

If too many inappropriate texts come in from one person, it's time to cut them off.

Time To Tip

It's not uncommon for restaurant or bar patrons to have to wait to pay even though they have their check in front of them and their credit card out. That's because servers aren't always in sight.

Now, instead of waving, a text will do.

A few seconds after typing, "T3. My credit card is waiting," into my phone, the server comes over to take my payment and smiles.

We've barely exchanged a word. I find texting extremely alluring. I message, she arrives.

Still, when it came to the tip, I left it the old-fashioned way -- on the table. Copyright 2011 WBUR. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.