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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

What we miss with contact-less dining

Alone, together. That's what it's felt like for many of us for more than three months. Especially for those who live at home in plain sight of neighbors behind apartment windows and on balconies. The elemental urge to commune with fellow human beings will not be suppressed. Sequestered, we've made music together across at least six feet of sidewalk, lawn, and the air between high-rise windows. We shake hands at each other instead of taking palm in palm. Released from lock-down, relieved, we click elbows or ankles together in greeting. And we will do almost anything to meet up, even if it means murmuring through masks. Together, at least, even if apart from others.

But we can't wait to sit, shoulder to shoulder; fans yelling from seats much less comfortable than couches at home, or to stand shoulder to shoulder at a bar because drinking in public is something that drinking at home cannot be. We're desperate for the din of the restaurant. The first few forays to our favorite restaurants have been sad. Quiet and sterile and distant is unfulfilling. Which is why I sank in my chair the other day when I read a brief Bloomberg article entitled "Robot Food Startups Have a New Pitch: No Humans Touch Your Lunch."

The growing interest and investment in automating the restaurant, from the back of the house to the front, has apparently not yielded much to this point. But that might change with the threat of viral contamination permeating every possible public nook and cranny.

Pizza Hut has been advertising that no one touches your pizza from the time it leaves the oven. Zume, a well-funded, Bay area start-up has been trying to figure out how to afford using robots to make pizzas from scratch then serve them. Creator is a start-up focused on using robots to create a new and different burger experience. Imagine a restaurant where a machine makes burgers in the back and delivers them to you on a conveyor belt. When the pandemic hit, according to the article, Creator made the conveyor belt self-sanitizing, and created a pressurized transfer chamber to transport burgers to the outside of the restaurant so they could deliver on the promise that you would "be the first to touch your burger."

This vision for a contactless dining world is echoed in a piece called "Bon Appetit! Robotic Restaurants Are The Future," by Naveen Joshi in Forbes. The article lays out the benefits and drawbacks of employing robotics in addition to, or instead of employees. The description of a robot-driven restaurant experience struck a nerve with me:

"Robots can provide an engaging and intuitive experience to diners. A humanoid robot can provide for a fun experience, especially for small kids. Serving as an attraction, robots can help drive new customers to the restaurant. A more robot reliant restaurant can offer navigation guidance during the experience, along with cooking and serving food expediently and simplifying the payment process. A robot restaurant can completely transform the overall experience for diners, restaurateurs and the industry as a whole."

This reads as mechanical as I expect the humanoid robot restaurant experience to be if it were to become the norm. As a one-off, a novelty, sure. It's too bloodless for the many occasions we need to commune, whether alone among many, or together with others, over a meal.

We spend around 60% of our food dollars on food and drink we get outside the home. Of course it's more convenient to let someone else feed us, but we eat out for the pleasure of dining in the company of others. The restaurant atmosphere depends on the menu, decor, music, and other physical attributes of the space, but the ambience maybe depends more on the ebb and flow of the people occupying the space. Real people. Raw emotions. Genuine smiles and servile, tip-driven smiles. "Can I have everything on the side?" "Sure!" "What's your favorite thing on the menu?" "I had the special, and it's amazing...but if you're not into fish..." A robot might refresh without asking your sweet tea as efficiently as your server, but would it get all embarrassed after spilling a drink on the table, and offer a glimpse into its life's struggles and hopes while wiping up the spill?

These life-affirming exchanges are what we'd miss with contact-less dining. The best trained robot will fall short of serving what matters almost as much as the food. Going fully self-serve is even sadder. I think we're too hardwired to let this contactless contact become the norm. I hope this to be true...

Alone, together. Take a good look at the people in the diner in Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks." The New Yorker art critic, Peter Schjeldahl mused about Edward Hopper in the June 8 &15 issue of the magazine. He writes "Aloneness is his (Hopper's) great theme, symbolizing America: insecure selfhood in a country that is only abstractly a nation." He says this aloneness is not loneliness, but rather, solitude. I say solitude is necessary for good mental health. But there's only so much solitude one can enjoy.

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