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Richard Rider

My Applebee’s robot waitress auditioning for the human waiter’s job

Last night I took my wife and our two young grandchildren to Applebee’s.  It went great — our 4 and 2 year old charges were more decorous than half the patrons.

But I digress.  Here’s what caught my attention: Applebee’s is testing a new ordering policy — using the technology that is rapidly becoming prominent in fast food restaurants.  Every table had an online electronic tablet, with the menu, ordering and payment process built in.  One can place the order and have the busboy bring your food.

For now, one can still use a waiter for service, but obviously the plan is to reduce or eliminate that service.  That makes PARTICULARLY good sense in California, which is rapidly becoming the home of the $15 minimum wage.   Moreover, California is one of only 7 states that requires “tip” employees to be paid a FULL minimum wage IN ADDITION TO all tips collected.  That can make a meal too pricey — reducing the number of times patrons choose to dine out.

Because of the hectic nature of two tykes seeking guidance in meal selection, we opted to use the waitress — much to her delight.  I had a nice salad as my entry (my diet is limited by salt). Our meal for 4, two of which were child’s meals and without desserts, with tax and tip came to $60. When/if the $15 minimum wage kicks in, that cost will likely rise another $5-$8 (assuming tip percentage remains the same).

Yes, we can afford it — if we want.  But we find a home meal costs 1/5 or less what dining out costs, and in many ways is just as good and certainly quicker than a sit-down restaurant (counting travel time).   That price disparity is set to grow significantly in the near future.

I figure that on the evening shift, my bubbly waitress made at LEAST $25 an hour in total paid compensation (current minimum wage is “only” $9 an hour). The CA minimum wage goes to $10 an hour on 1 January, 2016, and a prop is on the ballot to make it $15 an hour.

Clearly Applebee’s is looking ahead and changing their labor policies.  If a busboy delivers our food, my tip will be reduced significantly — or disappear entirely.  It will be more like a buffet than a restaurant when it comes to service.

My energetic waitress may well find herself out of the restaurant business in the near future — or at least working fewer hours.  And almost certainly making less per hour, if the Applebee innovation is adopted permanently.  I didn’t ask her if she’s yet connected the dots in this matter.