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Is service at the tap of a finger going to rule the restaurant world?

Jessica Dunker is president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s my pizza?

A recent study from the National Restaurant Association revealed that more than a quarter of consumers would likely use a drone delivery service if their local restaurant offered the option. Forty percent of consumers ages 18 to 44 would be willing to try such “human-free” delivery while only 9 percent of those over age 65 were warm to the idea.

Seem like an absurd question to study in the first place? Not any more absurd than Uber testing “driverless” cars in Pittsburgh.

Consumer willingness to interact with technology, rather than people, for traditional customer service functions is increasing at a breakneck pace. Combine these changing attitudes with shortages in the labor pool, new wage and labor mandates, and razor thin restaurant industry margins, and suddenly investments in cutting edge tablet, kiosk, and even delivery technology don’t seem terribly far-fetched for many restaurant owners and operators.

As an example, tableside payment stations and devices, once novelties, have steadily gained consumer acceptance with 63 percent of those surveyed saying they would be willing to use such payment tools (up from 48 percent just last year). Similarly four in five consumers now say they would be willing to use self-service kiosks for ordering.

What is happening?

I would argue that as restaurant consumers we have already been “trained” to stand in line, place a food order, carry the meal to the table ourselves, fill and refill our drinks, and separate our trash from the dishes before clearing our places. It’s no great leap to think we’d be willing to key in our order and swipe a card for payment. In fact, a majority of consumers say that customer-facing technology increases convenience, speeds service and increases order accuracy. More than one-third of consumers go so far as to credit technology options as the reason they dine out, as well as order takeout and delivery more often than ever before.

I suddenly feel very old.

I will likely always fall on the side of wanting a real human being on the other side of the counter noting the fact that I "want my dressing on the side." And obviously, I believe strongly that there will always be a place for great full-service restaurants. But I think we all need to brace ourselves for fewer face-to-face, and more finger-to-screen, hospitality interactions than we ever imagined.

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