Kimbal Musk, being Kimbal Musk, approached the grimness of the spring shutdown as an opportunity. “Never let a crisis go to waste,” he says, reiterating the now-familiar message about finding the good in the bad. For Musk—CEO of the Kitchen Restaurant Group, early investor in X.com (which later became PayPal), and brother of Elon Musk—that silver lining came in the form of doing an informal case study at his Boulder and Denver restaurants, the Kitchen and Next Door. “We did an AB test of what you can do with tech,” he explains. While Musk kept the Kitchen low-tech, with paper menus and traditional service (although he added contactless pay), he took Next Door entirely digital.
The thought process for a zero-touch app, with orders placed via QR c`ode and managed from beginning to end from guests’ phones, began pre-COVID. Musk was aware of the growing demand for such a service among 25- to 35-year-olds, and he was already conceptualizing the app. “I knew it was possible. I understood the architecture, I was just waiting for a software provider to do it,” he says. “As soon as COVID hit, I called up engineers because suddenly everyone had time on their hands.” Coding that would normally take 18 months was done in eight weeks. When Musk reopened Next Door on May 28, it was a contact-free restaurant.
What he found was incredible efficiency. “It’s like a magical ordering experience,” Musk says. Servers are still present to guide the guest and answer questions, but the system (called Next Door on Demand) allows guests to control the pace, nab a second beer even if their server is across the room, and close out when they’re ready. The result is a satisfied customer and staff. “Instead of a server handling three to four tables, they can handle five or six tables. They make more money,” he says. The tech has also allowed Next Door to shift its compensation model: Musk nixed the full tipped wage and employees now share tips between the front and back of house. He likes that staff gets paid even if there’s only one person dining in the restaurant. (Which, these days, is very much a reality. Musk reports that the Union Station location is at 10 percent of usual sales.)
Matt Hoskins, vice president of operations at Stem Ciders in Lafayette, says contactless ordering also saves on labor and staffing; the cidery and restaurant uses GoTab to service its expansive outdoor space. “We wanted to have a self-serviceable option where we can send people to a table, they can look at the menu, order, and pay all right there,” he says. “It saves us a lot of time, sometimes three to six trips to a table by a paid server.”
Dining has never been and never should be just a transaction. A restaurant still needs to be up to the task of doling out culture and hospitality.
Of course, not every customer is on the digital bandwagon, or willing to download yet another app. That was a sticking point for Stem: “I don’t want to go to a restaurant and have to download your app in order to order dinner,” says Hoskins. “[GoTab, which is web-based] doesn’t really affect the consumer.” For the 10 to 20 percent that is resistant to tech, Musk says the old adage of meeting the guests where they are still applies. At Next Door, servers will happily take orders the old-fashioned way. Over time, though, Musk says many of those once-reluctant guests are coming around—most likely because the market at large recognizes that zero touch is both safer and more efficient.
It’s important to note that contactless doesn’t mean soulless. Dining has never been and never should be just a transaction. A restaurant still needs to be up to the task of doling out culture and hospitality. “How do you serve the guest in the new digital era and ensure hospitality?” says Musk, asking the question that many operators are concerned about. The answer, he believes, is exactly the same way—except more deftly. “We’ve all been in a restaurant where you just want to order another round of drinks, or you’re waiting a long time for the check,” he says. “Those are easy things technology can solve. Ordering and paying from your phone removes the waiting and replaces it with more social interaction with friends and family.”
Hoskins puts it more simply: “It’s all about customer satisfaction,” he says. “Some people still want full service but at a distance. Others want to be on their own.” Contactless ordering, combined with meaningful hospitality, allows you to offer both. As Hoskins says, “I just don’t see it going back.”
Although Next Door On Demand’s app is proprietary, Musk is giving the code base to any operator who wants to use it as a jumping off point. He encourages the curious to stop by Next Door and ask the GM for a demo of the system. “The first step is believing that the customer will enjoy it,” Musk says.
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