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Hi-Touch vs. Hi-Tech

We have automatic teller machines, self-service kiosks, and now -- the electronic waiter? That's the notion behind concept restaurant uWink Media Bistro, where tables are outfitted with touch screens that allow patrons to peruse a menu and place orders without ever needing to interact with a server. Comfort food is delivered to the table by a runner, and an emcee of sorts mingles about, helping patrons use the system's other main feature Ã.‚¬" the touch screens also serve as a game console that can facilitate play across tables with other diners.

uWink is the vision of Nolan Bushnell, founder of concept restaurant Chuck E. Cheese -- before there were concept restaurants -- and video game console Atari -- before there were video games. The atmosphere inside is hip and trendy, a requirement, given its target audience: 21 to 35 year old women (uWink is banking on the notion that, where women go, men will follow). The first restaurant opened in L.A. in October 2006 and Bushnell says he has plans to open six more franchises in L.A. and Las Vegas by the end of the year.

There's no question that the concept is visionary. But is this newest wave of serve yourself technology taking the notion too far, especially in an industry like hospitality where personal interaction and customer service is a defining characteristic? Only a waiter, for example, can offer entrée suggestions based on first-hand experience or help patrons select a glass of wine. The entire notion of tipping is based on the fact that patrons want high-touch service, and are willing to pay extra for it.

In hospitality environments, many hotels and restaurants tout their customer service as a differentiator. But when the guest-server interaction is minimized, and the human factor is traded off for hip and trendy, it begs the question: Is uWink tapping into a new evolution in consumer behavior that places self service, and even novelty, above the human factor?

One thing's for sure: if past performance is any indicator of future success, Bushnell's ideas have a track record of revolutionizing entire industries.

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