I get a kick out of visiting quick service restaurants (QSR’s). Although my background is in the fine dining segment of
our wonderful industry, it gives me great pleasure when I find an innovative QSR that serves great food. During my travels I seek out local joints or smaller regional chains that are known for something; a local dish, an innovative or gimmicky practice, or some sort of unique beverage or service.
Such was the case when I found Hurry 4 Curry in Phoenix recently. Hurry 4 Curry is located in downtown Phoenix at the new Arizona Center (400 E. Van Buren St.). The location is small and seats about 20. It’s wedged in between two other well known full service restaurants with a large glass storefront and an open kitchen.
Hurry 4 Curry is unique not because of its food but the customer interface you encounter when you enter the restaurant and place your order. Upon crossing the threshold through a glass door on the left side of the storefront, you encounter one large and two small LCD screens. The larger screen is mounted on the wall five feet off the floor and lists all the menu items for the day. The two smaller HP touch screens are located just below shoulder height on a counter and are used for placing orders.
When I first encountered the screens I found them amusing. The menu screen is brightly lit and easy to read. The smaller screens have instructions for placing an order with no human being to offer guidance in sight. This sort of customer performed ordering technology is not new but it is always interesting to see. I quickly placed an order for a Chicken Biryani and Garlic Naan by clicking through to that option. When the Biryani and Naan were confirmed, I concluded my order. Instructions came on the screen for me to swipe my credit card on the card reader just below the LCD screen. I did so and it worked flawlessly.
Once my order was in I scanned over to the right where the open kitchen is and noticed two cooks preparing items. Neither looked over at me as I tried to figure out what I was supposed to do. Grabbing my receipt from the printer on the counter next to the card swipe, I decided to sit down and wait to see what would happen. After 5 or 6 minutes, one of the cooks brought me my plate of Biryani and Naan. I thanked him and he walked away without saying a word. Interesting…
The Biryani wasn’t all that memorable; they grilled the chicken, diced it and tossed it with the rice and peas just before service. It was more of a stir-fry than a Biryani. The flavor was good though and the dish was hot. The Naan was hot and tasty; nicely done. What startled me more about the experience was the lack of human contact and how empty that lack of contact made me feel. After giving it some thought, I realized that the only contact we have in a typical QSR is at the service counter when placing and picking up our order. Yes, this is a blinding flash of the obvious but one based the absence altogether of service rather than an incident of poor delivery as typically is the case. In those few minutes of human contact, a QSR has the opportunity to define itself one way or the other. When that contact is missing, a great opportunity is lost (assuming the contact wasn’t negative).
I can understand why Hurry 4 Curry would make order-taking customer driven and automated. Looking around, I never saw more than two people in the restaurant although they served more than 15 people in the short time I was there. By eliminating the hourly cashiers with touch-screens, Hurry 4 Curry is achieving a much lower labor cost and a higher degree of efficiency (the hurry in Hurry 4 Curry). The labor savings and efficiency are not passed on to customers in the price of the menu items (Biryani and Naan totaled $9.00) but the savings probably give the place a higher profit margin and a much greater probability of surviving in the long run. Still, the experience left me unsettled. This was the first dining experience I have had where I entered, ordered, received and consumed an entire meal without hearing a single word from any employee in the restaurant. The complete lack of human contact aside from my food “delivery”
was enough to make me wonder whether the savings in labor would wind up being the Achilles heel that kills the place. I admire Hurry 4 Curry for the quality of its innovation and thoughtful approach to efficiency. However, it is clear that we have a long way to go as an industry in building the perception of service into an automated interface. Even Rosie the cleaning robot in the Jetsons offered a lilting voice and positive, yet synthetic affect. The next time I get my curry in a hurry, I hope it comes with a smiling dose of human contact (whether real or
synthetic) and service. After all, what would a QSR be without the S?