We Ask David Barber: What’s the Future of the Restaurant?

We talked with the Blue Hill co-owner about how restaurants can use technology behind-the-scenes without interfering with the customer experience.

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According to Barber, Blue Hill isn’t particularly unique in the way we use technology as opposed to other restaurants.

Walmart entering your home to stock your fridge with groceries, Amazon dropping Whole Foods hauls at your doorstep via drone, plant-based meat that “bleeds”—if this is increasingly how we’re eating in 2017, what can we expect in 2020?

2050? And given a growing world population and climate change concerns, which of these innovations do we actually need?

These are the big questions we’re exploring on November 3-4 at Food Loves Tech (FLT): our all you can eat and drink Industry City expo where you can test drive food technologies from field and sea to next gen frontiers. We’ll also have expert panels answering some of the most important questions facing our food supply including one entitled “Online Reservations to Robot Chefs: What’s the Future of the Restaurant?”

David Barber is the co-owner of Blue Hill, which if you haven’t heard of, is a hospitality company that encompasses a working farm and restaurant locations in Greenwich Village and Pocantico Hills, New York. The highly esteemed restaurants are also helmed by his brother chef Dan Barber and together they aim “to blur the line between the dining experience and the educational, bringing the principles of good farming directly to the table.”

We chatted with David about opportunities for restaurants to use technology behind-the-scenes to run their businesses more efficiently without interfering with the customer experience.

Edible Brooklyn: What do you see as the role for technology in a restaurant setting?
David Barber: Labor is a real concern for the hospitality industry. So if you don’t have technology working for you on back of house things that are not customer facing, you are probably not managing your business very well.

A lot of the restaurant industry is very mom and pop. Everyone has their own systems that they are accustomed to, and it’s very hard to change. You still have people cutting manual checks to pay vendors. I don’t know of any other industry that’s as large as the hospitality industry that does that. It’s crazy to have two or three people cutting checks all week. All of that needs to change. Auto pay and bill payment need to be integrated. Purchase ordering needs to be integrated so you can have proper food inventory.

EB: What tools are available to help restaurants with that back of house work?
DB: I think people are frustrated with Point of Sale systems because they haven’t really evolved to service restaurants. Everyone has one to take credit cards, but does it really help you manage inventory and suppliers? They’re sort of a one size fits all, but a lot of people don’t choose to run their restaurant that way. I know there are a lot of people starting those companies and trying to make a dent in that problem. SALIDO is one, and Toast is another that is trying to build a hospitality-friendly, thoughtful platform.

I’m actually involved with a company called BlueCart, which is an enterprise software solution for purchase ordering. Suppliers upload all their information, customized for the restaurant if they want, and the restaurant goes to one place to do the bulk of their orders, and do inventory. It really is that theme of how are you using people to be more efficient about the way you run things.

EB: Can you tell me about how technology plays a role in the Blue Hill restaurants?
DB: Blue Hill isn’t particularly unique in the way we use technology as opposed to other restaurants. We have recently upgraded our reservation system from OpenTable to a newer one called Reserve. They are developing something that is more unique, and helping us to understand what information is available about our guests that they choose to share—like allergies or things they don’t like—in the hope that information helps us to provide better hospitality. That is where high end hospitality needs to go, because the tools are available and people want to feel cared for before they arrive.

EB: Do you see technologies being used in ways that you don’t think are appropriate for the restaurant industry?
DB: I think the whole iPad in front of the customer’s face eating dinner in front of a blue light is really depressing. There is a real issue with minimum wage and what the customer is willing to pay, and the very thin margin of restaurants. I understand that cost-saving is important, and the low hanging fruit is that you don’t need waiters, you can just have iPads. But to me those should be last resort after you have tackled everything behind the scenes, using technology to run your business in the best way possible. People are getting sold on these kiosk systems instead of looking at things that are a little less slick but are still hanging onto the core of what it means to be hospitality.

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Emily Farr

Emily’s work explores the role of fishers’ knowledge in fisheries management. She has milked goats in Vermont, worked on seaweed and shellfish aquaculture in Connecticut, and holds a Master’s from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy.