May 4th, 2014

Random Remarks about the Recent WDW trip

I haven't gotten it together for a real trip report. Sorry!

First off, old Fastpass is done: all those little kiosks have cozies on them. I sort of wish I'd taken pictures.

In the meantime, new Fastpass is awesome! Copy now works, and the app is much less buggy when it comes to shifting selections/showtimes. R. says that when you use up your three selections, you can go to a kiosk and get another one. Supposedly, the app will be updated to have that and related features in the future. My theory is that they basically don't want anyone waiting in line for a ride when they could be out there buying something. But hey, just a theory.

I picked up three of the Mechanical Kingdom series at Art of Disney on Main Street; they didn't have Daisy or Goofy. When I called Guest Merchandise Services, they had the most amazing message in front of the automatic menu system: You Cannot Get Any Frozen Merch Here. Not in those words, but damn close. While we were in the park on Friday, I was determined to get A. into Belle. We had had a fastpass for it, but illness had disrupted our schedule and I wasn't able to get a fastpass for a reasonable time either that day or the following day when we would be flying home. So it was first thing in the morning or never. We were there for line drop at park open (no magic hours in MK that day), but there was a _second_ line drop past the castle and we were routed around the carousel. Why? To set up the line for the princess pictures fairly. Which princesses were so popular? Duh: the combined Anna and Elsa lines. Within five minutes, the line was at 2 hours. Belle was deserted. People trickled in after us, saying the line had gotten to 3 hours within 10 minutes of park open. I have never seen anything quite like it in my life. (And on our first day in MK, I'd been shocked at an afternoon line of 135 minutes for Anna and Elsa!)

It's actually even more appalling: the Fastpasses for Anna and Elsa are booked 30 days out, on a rolling basis.

http://disneyparks.disney.go.com/blog/2014/04/frozen-anna-elsa-arrive-at-princess-fairytale-hall-today/

I've heard from a few different people (who do not know each other) that the Frozen merch availability issues are somehow a Disney Plan to drive up demand. No one -- and I mean _no one_ ever creates this kind of nightmare for themselves.

Daily Activities Include: horse, bicycles, Julie's Place

Today, A. went to the horse. T. and I went to Julie's Place. Then we went to the horse. After, we waited until our friends got home from their errands, and then R., T. and the friends went for a bicycle ride. They had a good time, but T. has gotten too big for this bike so R. is shopping for a somewhat bigger one.

A. asked for brownies and was unwilling to accept cupcakes or anything else as a substitute. So I made brownies. This was after making waffles for breakfast (because we were out) and peach crisp in the middle of the day.

R. cooked some steaks on the grill for dinner.

I am currently reading Neil Irwin's _The Alchemists_, which I have mixed feelings about. It is very personality driven, and I don't know that I really respect that given the nature of the story being told. On the other hand, he's not getting anything obviously wrong, and it is sort of nice to have a less technical perspective on the crisis. Policy is, after all, the work of humans acting -- or not acting -- together, so a human and personality focused story may well be the most valid approach of all.

Oh, we also tracked down some photos that R. had printed out at a CVS in Virginia for my sister but had been mysteriously difficult to actually pick up.

Also, yesterday the sales person from SolarCity came by to review the design with us -- apparently our really high roof works out great for solar. No one saw that coming, altho it does makes sense in retrospect. They are claiming they expect it to be up and running in June, but I'll wait and see how things go when they run it past the permitting folks at Town Hall. I won't blame SolarCity if my town is slow on that process.

Restaurant automation

For several months now, activists pushing for a $15 minimum wage (honestly, not because they were seriously expecting to get it, but that's a whole other story) have been taken sufficiently seriously in various corners to add a little extra oomph to restaurant automation. I thought now might be a good time to see what the options are and speculate about which ones might take off.

Lara Rosenbaum put together a really impressive summary of what is out there to help automate a restaurant:

http://blog.rockbot.com/blog/going-digital-latest-restaurant-bar-technology-2014

By now, most restaurants have an order system which servers enter orders into, generating a ticket in the kitchen and which will ultimately generate a bill for the customer. These are often, but not always, integrated with the POS system (the part where your payment happens). Here's how I think of this: in the 1990s, bookstore chains had a computer where they could look up what books they could order from their supplier, whether that was Baker & Taylor, Ingram, wtf. The next step was for that electronic catalog of available titles to be presented directly to the customer, a la Amazon, BN.com, etc. Similarly, if you think about what happens at McDonald's and Wendy's and so forth, you could imagine the customer putting the order in themselves, if they had any idea how to navigate that screen of buttons.

Disney's quick serve restaurants in the resorts have touch screens where you place your order. That generates a ticket that you hand to the cashier with your salad/dessert/bakery/beverage selection to pay -- and a ticket in the kitchen as well. The cashier gives you a pager and the kitchen tells you when to pick up your meal. This kind of stuff is real and it does exist, altho it shifts/reduces human labor rather than eliminating it entirely.

Chili's has successfully tested Ziosk, a tablet based table ordering system and intends to roll it out widely. Applebee's has done something similar with E La Carte. They seem to think that this can increase orders of beverages, desserts and appetizers, and also increase tip size. This makes sense to me: the wait for the first visit from the server, and then for a return, tends to compress ordering and reduce the amount ordered. They also believe that it turns the tables a little more quickly, again because the customer does not have to wait for the server to show up with the bill, and then return with change/after processing the card (altho sometimes these two stages are compressed already). Ziosk and E La Carte also have games which generate a small amount of money as well.

Surprisingly, many left-of-center commentators on the interaction of minimum wage and restaurants are not focusing on this aspect of restaurant automation, but rather evoking the automats of yore -- and the vending machines of Japan. Which is super weird, because both of those systems are incredibly high labor, but you know, maybe they know something I don't.

I think a better way to think of table top ordering systems at chain casual dining restaurants is two-fold: it evokes the table top jukebox that is so persistently popular that Johnny Rockets continues to include it in its restaurants and transitions the menu from paper to electronic form. While I feel confident that these tablet systems will reduce the amount of labor needed to serve each table, I do not believe that it will reduce the amount of labor in the chain casual dining sector overall. In fact, I suspect the opposite. Jevons paradox may well apply, at least for a while (presumably there is some upper limit on the amount of demand for chain casual dining).

If I am right, then increasing the minimum wage would be the best possible thing we could do for both the restaurant industry AND workers in that industry. Automation would make labor cost a smaller fraction of price AND more people could afford to eat out more often. Win/win all around.

I'm still poking around the fast food part of the industry; that's less clear.

(ETA: http://www.neontommy.com/news/2014/01/burger-robots-and-burrito-vending-machines-shake-fast-food
Robot made burgers from Momentum Machines and a vending machines that makes burritos.)


ETA: I'm ignoring the health implications at the moment. Obvs, we need to continue to push on the Veggies are Trendy trend, and work on portion size, sodium content, blah, blah, bleeping, blah. Tablet systems should make providing comprehensive nutrition and allergen content much easier.

Restaurant automation limitations

Let's think a little about the automation that occurs in _producing_ the food at a restaurant, rather than the automation that occurs in finding out what you want, communicating that to the people making the food, collecting your payment, etc. If you've been reading things like Brad Stone's _The Everything Store_, the analogy to Amazon is strong: browsing the merch on site and paying is completely human free -- fulfilling the order and delivering it to you is anything but.

Consider the lowly cup of coffee, upon which much of the world relies to get going every morning. If you have that cup of coffee at home, you might have bought pre-ground coffee at the store, put it into a machine and drank it out of a cup you then poured into. Or perhaps you used a K-cup. Either way, you had to acquire the coffee (which means either you went out to get it, or someone came to you with it) and you'll have to dispose of the leftovers (ideally by composting, but why get into it). You can see at least some of the labor, altho by no means all of it.

If, instead, you rolled out of bed, dressed and stopped at a Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts or the break room at work before settling down to put your shoulder into the great wheel of capitalism, somebody else had to do basically all of the same steps; hopefully benefiting from some efficiencies of scale, but also making some tradeoffs (your home brewed cup probably is a washable ceramic; your go cup might not be so re-usable). There is additional labor here associated with a payment which is not present in the home brew up (probably).

Perhaps on a weekend, you would _sit down_ at a restaurant -- maybe a nice place that serves brunch. Someone would come up to your table and ask you if you want coffee, perhaps with the carafe in hand and cups already on the table, but all the same principles apply. And you probably won't pay as you order, as in the previous paragraph, but it will take longer and occur after you are done with your coffee (and brunch).

A lot of restaurant business involves beverages -- coffee or other -- and a lot of that business is automated. We could complete this process (and we probably ought to, when it comes to alcoholic beverages, in the interests of making it possible for the customer to really know what they are getting into, if nothing else) and perhaps it will make sense to do so.

The rest of restaurant business involves food, and while a great deal of that business is standardized (largely because restaurants that do not standardize food have to have amazing markups in order to stay in business and thus constitute a relatively tiny fraction of the restaurant industry albeit with outsize cachet) not so very much of it is mechanized. The mechanical parts involve things like dispensers for consistent amounts of sugar or other sweetener in the coffee, and consistent pours from the soda machine. McDonald's, last I checked, does not automate salting and bagging the fries, despite this, from 2002:

http://www.qsrmagazine.com/news/mcdonalds-may-adopt-new-automated-french-fry-machine

Why?

The answer, curiously, may lies in the limits of standardization. (Altho this doesn't actually explain the fry thing.) Momentum Machines burger making robot has a tomato tube and slicer -- I'd love to know what the tolerances are for the tomatoes that go into that tube. I'm betting the ripeness has to be within a very narrow range, and the size must be within narrow limits as well. Food is tough to standardize -- or, rather, standardized food is often unappetizingly tough. And given the difficulty of designing machinery to cope with the relatively wide ranges that many basic food components come in, I suspect the industry has become a bit shy over the years of investing in more attempts. And if the mean time to failure of a complex machine is sufficiently short, it is more reliable to use human labor; the expense and bad feelings caused by each failure only making the calculation in favor of using humans that much clearer.

It's worth noting that the burrito machine I pointed to in a previous post does not allow for any customization -- only whether you add sides or not. It's less clear what the burger robot can or cannot do. But if you stand in line at a McDonald's or Wendy's for any length of time, you'll notice that a lot of the orders are "grill orders" (<- that's McD speak; I don't know what other chains call it), and if you look at their nutrition information online, many of these chains will provide automated menus that let you add and subtract many components of burgers, salads, etc. and recalculate the nutrition information with the change.

How well does a burger robot cope with No Cheese or Hold the Mayo or Extra Pickles or No Onion?

I don't know. But I've spent enough time around robots (I mean this literally) to have a fairly cynical perspective on how effectively they can replace a human. I think we should expect to see more standardization, more front-of-the-house automation, and incremental increases in support equipment (more consistent pours, whether of sweetener, ketchup, mustard, mayo, vodka, wtf). I do not think it is reasonable to expect a dramatic decrease in the number of people working in restaurant kitchens. As each human-hour becomes more efficient through these changes, demand for restaurant kitchen output is likely to increase, particularly if labor in restaurants is simultaneously better compensated (thus making them more able to afford the fruits of their own labor), likely leading, through Jevons paradox, to automation and increased efficiency = increased use.