The Trouble With Tablets

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Automated self-pay tablets, particularly those mounted on dinner tables, have thoroughly infiltrated America’s restaurant chains. Even if advances in technology mean there’s now a shiny new “virtual food hall” called Sous Vide Kitchen in New York and a robot salad-tosser in Boston, tablets have not yet fully replaced the need for old-fashioned smile-wearing, human servers.

As a result, a not-so-peaceful coexistence seems to be emerging between tech and workers. On one hand are the more than 200,000 touchscreen devices are in 8,000 U.S. eateries, enticing customers to push buttons for artichoke dip, to refill beer, and to play FarmVille-style games, not to mention dip their credit cards into the chip reader to settle bills on demand. Over a billion guests now jab fingers at tablets maintained by a company called Ziosk, at Chili’s, Olive Garden, Uno Pizzeria, On the Border, and Margaritaville. Applebee’s and Outback Steakhouse deploy a Ziosk rival called Presto, and Buffalo Wild Wings uses the company called Buzztime. In May, Ziosk, which controls about 95 percent of the tabletop-tablet market share, released its latest-generation tablet, which is geared toward indie restaurants.

Platform differences aside, all the companies promise a similar self-pay utopia: At rollout, Ziosk’s partners announced that they expected to see 15 percent tip increases, and central to the company’s sales pitch is the idea that the tech will turn tables six to nine minutes more quickly. Buzztime contends that tables with its self-service POS system spend 21 percent more per check, while Presto says its tablets increase check totals by 10 percent. So while most marketing focuses on increased profits and greater productivity, workers increasingly say these devices are creating a problem so dystopic and obvious that you might swear it was a plot from last season’s Black Mirror.

Part of the problem has to do with customer ratings, which have replaced the old-school, paper-based comment card. At least one tablet company asserts that diners are 50 times likelier to complete customer-satisfaction surveys though their platform. In turn, data analysis can be used to assess job performance, which servers say renders an already challenged job sector all the more abusive, inaccurate, and unfair. Subreddits abound with such complaints, and recently, BuzzFeed took an exhaustive look at how the medium is altering workplace culture, including comments from servers who reported cut shifts and schedule reassignments they say were a direct result of lower feedback scores.

The Achilles’ heel of customer-satisfaction data entered on a tablet is that it’s not attached to names and faces. Comments are logged automatically and anonymously, and it’s just as possible that the end user is a 5-year-old enamored by a shiny screen as it is a vindictive adult who couldn’t get over the same-sex couple he saw holding hands in the Applebee’s foyer. BuzzFeed’s report even recounted the true story of a disgruntled customer who demerited a server simply because his Chili’s didn’t stock its bar with Fireball Cinnamon Whisky.

Predictably, men have brought sexual misconduct into the tablet-survey realm, and have generally found new ways of being disgusting within the medium, like docking female servers with derisive remarks. It’s something like the horrible receipt-insult trend that’s unfolded industrywide in the last few years, only with less of a public face, and few options to call out on social media. For its part, Ziosk says it gives clients the option of filtering objectionable words out of survey responses, using a database that currently contains 397 words. If target words aren’t being filtered out, the company said in an email, it’s because those chains opted out.

Servers say that regardless, an accumulation of negative input leads to reassigned, less favorable shifts, so an expected $200 nightly haul turns into a dismal $75. At Olive Garden and Red Robin, which use Ziosk, workers claim that they were assigned unfavorable shifts after receiving what they say were arbitrarily low survey scores.

Adam was a server who left his job at a Red Robin in the Northwest last summer. In a message, he wrote that his reviews from management were positive, but he started to land much less desirable shifts because of low Ziosk scores. To “pass,” he wrote, the chain required servers to score 80 percent on surveys, based entirely on a final question asking how likely guests were, from 0 to 10, to return to Red Robin in the future. He felt that question didn’t address guests’ actual dinner experiences, and either way, he claims bad scores were often unrelated to his table service. Adam wrote that he and another male colleague were “repeatedly” dinged by men irked that they hadn’t gotten an attractive woman, for example. Other times, it came down to choosing between having a conscience and making his bosses at Red Robin happy. “Imagine a scenario where a customer wanted another alcoholic beverage, when you were going to cut them off,” he said. “It’s your duty to your community to make sure they get home safe, but if you cut them off, they could give you a negative review.”

Adam also contends that crossing that 80 percent passing threshold was “essentially impossible, even for seasoned veterans of the restaurant industry like myself.” Under the system, servers get a negative point for everything between 0 and 6, nothing for 7 or 8, and a positive point for 9 or 10. A server could therefore wait ten tables, receive scores of 6, 8, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, and 10 — an average of 9.4 — and fail with a 70 percent rating because the 6 and one 10 would cancel out. Mind-bogglingly, 6 plus 8, 8, 8, 8, 8, 8, 8, 8, and 8 would result in a score of -100 percent. (Red Robin chose not to reply to multiple requests for comment.)

Other restaurant workers say the bizarre new frontiers of harassment and misconduct opened up by the technology are not taken seriously. Anna, a server at the Smokey Bones, a casual barbecue chain where female servers typically wear sleeveless shirts or halter tops, told BuzzFeed that customer comments focused on her appearance. In a message to Grub Street, Allyson, another Smokey Bones server in Georgia, wrote that she encountered a “Pandora’s box of sexually harassing comments” in her location’s surveys. Both servers say their complaints were unaddressed.

Two Olive Garden servers who talked with Grub on the condition of anonymity say managers even made survey comments public, including several obscene or abusive ones, by posting them on an office wall, affecting workplace morale. Locations now send district managers weekly emails detailing employees’ Ziosk scores, they wrote, suggesting these ratings will remain a key evaluation tool.

“Our goal is always to deliver a flawless experience for each of our guests,” an Olive Garden representative wrote, in response to a request. “Ziosk is just one tool, among many others, we use to measure how we are doing and provide feedback to our servers to enhance the overall guest experience.” (In a separate emailed statement, Ziosk CEO Jack Baum indicated that clients receive daily, weekly, and monthly breakdowns of survey metrics so they “can see if a low score is in an area about food or atmosphere, or another factor that is out of the server’s control.”)

Not all chains use anonymous survey scores to evaluate job performance. “Scoring our team members in a survey doesn’t fix issues with a guest experience,” a rep for TGI Fridays wrote, in response to a request. The chain instead opts to have managers observe waitstaff in action, and offer pointers in real time. “Not all of our franchisees use these devices, but when we do it’s for ordering, entertainment, and payment purposes,” the rep continued, adding that guests are free to mention individual servers on Yelp or Google if they have complaints or praise.

Harassment and an unfair use of customer feedback are not the only complaints from restaurant chain servers. They cite issues with platforms that manifest in the form of orders not being pushed through to the kitchen, or conspicuous lags in timing, that appear at random and don’t seem to have easy fixes. (“I will never again work in a restaurant with tablets,” one server wrote.)

What’s more, they said, is that Ziosk “glitches” on occasion even cost servers their tips. On Reddit, servers and customers claim to have witnessed calculation errors on Olive Garden’s Ziosks in the past two years. An Olive Garden spokesperson described this issue as resolved. “There was a brief glitch with Ziosk machines in 2015 that was unique to a very specific and infrequent use case. The issue was resolved within 24 hours and there have been no issues since,” the spokesperson wrote, when asked for comment. “We identified any servers impacted and made up the difference in lost tips.”

Ziosk stresses that time is money, and servers save lots of it by working with tablets. The company notes that the tip average for Ziosk transactions during the past 12 months is a “strong” 19.91 percent, which handily beats the national average (16.4 percent) that Square recently calculated among its sellers.

One less controversial position is that today’s tablets are more widely accepted than the forerunners that appeared years ago. Critics who blasted them as tacky, impersonal, and job-destroying have disappeared somewhat. And the question of whether tablets need cameras is old news. But privacy concerns, potential for abuse in the #MeToo era, and claims of lost wages mean that tablet technology is now squarely on the radar of labor activists, even as Ziosk CEO Jack Baum told BuzzFeed that the platform is not meant to be a disciplinary tool. Saru Jayaraman, an advocate, attorney, and ROC United president, says digitizing the restaurant experience may not be as helpful as intended.

“Technology can be used to improve working conditions for restaurant workers, and the dining experience for customers. Unfortunately, that is not the case for the way in which chain restaurants are using tablets,” Jayaraman says, pointing out that the use of tablets don’t help leverage “problematic power dynamics” for workers who already face a certain amount of economic instability and sexual harassment.

In the past, Jayaraman has proven to be a formidable opponent on similar issues. “Chain restaurants are using tablets to threaten workers based on problematic customer reviews, or in some cases silence workers — telling them that if they complain, they will be replaced by technology,” she says. “Chain restaurants should instead be investing in technology that improves workers’ ability to provide quality food and service to their customers.”

Restaurant Tablets Are Causing Headaches for Servers