On Tuesday, BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, a chain of 151 casual dining restaurants, launched a new app that allows diners to place their orders before they arrive and pay at the end of the meal, removing the need to wait for a server to bring you a menu, take your order, and deliver the check and change. To make sure the food’s hot, the kitchen doesn’t fire up your meal until you’ve been seated.BJ’s chief executive Gregory Trojan believes the traditional flurry of tasks handled by waiters distracts them from their more important job: being hospitable. The app, he says in an interview, aims not to reduce staff or turn servers into robots who just transport food from the kitchen to the table but to relieve them of certain duties so they can be more attentive to customers.
The larger problem Trojan hopes the app will address is speed. In traditional full-service restaurants, all that service takes time, which is bad during peak hours when turning over tables means sales. He says that by allowing customers to take care of ordering and payment themselves, the average one-hour meal is cut down to about 35 minutes. To further encourage time-strapped diners to order ahead, BJ’s puts them on a wait list to be seated once their mobile order comes in, rather than when they arrive at the restaurant.
By quickening service, Trojan also hopes to better compete with fast casual restaurants, which in recent years have lured many customers away from full-service with quality food served quickly, at lower prices. BJ’s same-store sales decreased 1.1 percent last year.
“We have seen too many restaurant companies eliminate the ability to build sales by trying to save on labor by cutting their sales force, reducing the number of hosts at the front desk, and minimizing kitchen staff,” said CFO Gregory Levin during an earnings call in May. “Therefore, we must and we will hold our line in labor so that we continue to provide great service to our guest and not make rash labor decisions that could tarnish our brand going forward.”
BJ’s is just the latest restaurant to remove waiters from the ordering process. Panera, in an effort to reduce errors that occur during ordering, is trying a new store format in which customers can order by kiosk or smartphone and have their food brought to their table. McDonald’s has also been experimenting with kiosks overseas.