Saturday, March 11, 2006

Picture this

My success as a prognosticator has been limited to buying VHS instead of Beta and picking George Michael as the one who’d become the star after Wham!. But I’m going to test my powers of prophecy with another prediction, this time specifically for the restaurant business: The new piece of technology you’ll all be embracing in the near future is neither a self-service guest ordering kiosk, a hand-held credit-card processor for servers, nor tabletop TVs for customer’s entertainment, despite the intriguing potential of those gizmos. Judging from recent events, the next Device of the Moment—the industry’s equivalent of the iPod—will be that new-age security guardian, the digital video camera. And with it, predictably, will come a fair amount of controversy.

You might recall the dust-up of about a year ago, when news reports revealed that some fine-dining restaurants had fixed cameras on guest tables so the kitchen could monitor how a meal was progressing and pace the preparation accordingly. There was a short-lived fit of head-shaking about the propriety of having Big Chef watching you, or the garde manger possibly playing voyeur as he cleaned the lettuce.

A louder yelp will likely be sounded by the public when cameras become as commonplace in dining rooms and walk-up service areas as they presently are in banks. Customers may not appreciate that the optical monitoring was undertaken for their safety. A test of sorts will soon commence in Australia, where cameras are reportedly being installed and trained on the salad bars of 28 Sizzlers to avert the sort of tampering that recently prompted the chain to close the outlets for a few days. A 57-year-old guest, now in custody, had allegedly sprinkled rat-poison pellets into soup tureens on the bars of two restaurants, making several other customers sick.

The U.S.-based chain’s Australian operation is apparently taking no chances of a copy-cat incident. But are customers going to like being taped as they mound their plates with potato salad and bacon bits?

Guests might object to the scrutiny, but restaurants could have no choice but to install the monitoring equipment. A high-profile measure under consideration in Chicago would require any business open for at least 15 hours to install security cameras both within and outside the premises. Eating places could find themselves back in the rock-and-a-hard-place squeeze they lamented when smoking restrictions were first being put into place. Customers won’t understand that their host is merely the agent of an unpopular law, not the author. The establishment becomes the lightning rod.

Patrons may not be the only ones who dislike the use of cameras to keep a watchful eye on a restaurant’s activities. In Pike County, Ky., a former employee of a Papa John’s pizza franchise has reportedly sued the proprietor for installing a video camera in a rest room for two days last month. According to news reports, the plaintiff was told the device was installed to detect drug-related activities. But the woman alleged that her privacy had been violated in the process. It’s difficult not to be sympathetic, though the purported reason for using the camera, if true, is also worthy of merit.

Balancing security benefits against guests’ discomfort at being watched while they order or eat is a tough task. Add such considerations as expense-account customers not wanting to be video’d while they conduct business, or couples not desiring to be recorded as they bill and coo on a date, and you’ve got a picture that’s filled with static. But I think it is indeed date-stamped, “Tomorrow.”

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