Can Technology Replace Servers?

You might have heard about a new trend in the food industry – tabletop tablets and computers being used in place of traditional wait staff. But can machines really replace servers?

Some of the major chains are saying yes. Chili’s, Panera, Applebee’s, Red Robin, and several others are testing tabletop ordering devices as a means of reducing labor cost. Benefits include allowing customers more direct control over the ordering process, minimizing labor expenditure, and giving diners a strong sense of security when paying with credit cards (most tabletop ordering devices allow diners to swipe their own cards at the table.) There is a human side to the equation that critics are saying will prevent this technology from replacing servers completely, however. Solo diners, one of the largest dining populations, often eat out in search of company. They like to converse with wait staff as a means of easing the loneliness of eating alone.

Being understaffed can kill your service, but being overstaffed will destroy your bottom line.

If you’re interested in the technology, companies like Ziosk are making waves with their gear. Make sure it matches your concept if you choose to use it, remember that the jury is still out regarding the long-term future of technology as service staff, and that the devices aren’t free. Although a University of Oxford study claims that there is a 92 percent chance of technology replacing service staff in the coming decades, you’ll still have to pay for the tablet itself, software, repairs, and maintenance. The best answer, for now at least, might be a blend of the two. Advanced technology like tabletop tablets can help servers focus more intently on enhancing the guest experience and keep better track of customer needs.

The major cost of operating a restaurant or eatery is often labor. There are very few exceptions to this rule, and regardless of your concept or floor plan, you will find the following formulas useful in determining the number of staff you need to hire.

Determining Your Seating Capacity

Your concept and space are already set, and labor is the next challenge. But how do you decide how many people to hire? This task is easier than you expect. Imagine a 4000-square-foot restaurant. As you may recall from earlier in the book, the recommended size of your kitchen is 25 percent the size of your restaurant,, your kitchen is approximately 1000 square feet. Set aside an additional 1000 square feet for your bar, too. If the restaurant is in Florida, you will need two bathrooms for every 75 guests (one for each gender), and these bathrooms need to be ADA compliant. But two bathrooms isn’t enough for your space. Remember, you can estimate one seat every 15 square feet. That means that this space will easily hold over 75 guests. Add two more bathrooms. If each bathroom is 100 square feet, and there are four (two for each gender), you are left with 1,600 square feet. Based on these calculations, your main dining room should comfortably accommodate approximately 106 guests. We can round that number up to 110, and an architect or designer may even be able to increase that number, for a combined total of 140 guests. For now, however, we’ll operate on the assumption that your maximum capacity is 110 guests. Knowing the number of guests can help you determine another important number.

The number of tables. (In the restaurant industry, we often refer to tables as “tops.”) It’s a good idea to vary the seating composition of your restaurant. Offer multiple table sizes, so that you can accommodate both large and small parties. Offering booths and tables helps to accommodate a wide range of guests as well. Some restaurants may feature other types of seating, such as a communal table or a long bar. Consider seating style a part of your design and concept. To determine your total number of tables, create a mix of seating arrangements. For this hypothetical scenario, we’ll assume that there are twenty four-tops, two six-tops, and nine two-tops (deuces). Keep in mind that these numbers aren’t exact, they’re just a guideline to help you determine your staff needs. Based on this rough calculation, the hypothetical restaurant in this scenario will have 31 tables.

Front of the House Staff

Now that you know the total number of tables, you also have a good idea how many servers you need. Serving can be a taxing job, and for a new restaurant, you need to give your team time to develop an efficient workflow. Plan on each server working a section of four tables, with a ratio of one busser for every three servers. As your team’s efficiency improves, you’ll be able to give your servers five table sections. You’ll also have a good idea who your strongest servers are, and approximately how many tables each can handle. Some servers work better in large sections of five to six tables, while others do their best in sections of three to four tables.

Divide the number of tables by the number of tables per section. In this case, if you follow my advice, 31 tables divided by four tables per section gives you 7.75 servers. Round down; labor is expensive. This means that you will need seven servers per shift. If you serve lunch and dinner daily, you need 14 servers each day. Assuming that your restaurant opens seven days per week, you have 98 serving shifts to fill each week. Let’s assume that each of your servers works five shifts per week. For our hypothetical scenario, you will need 20 servers on staff when your restaurant opens.

Now that we’ve solved the question of how many servers you should have on staff, let’s figure out how many bussers are needed. You should have two bussers for every seven servers. With two shifts per day, you will need four bussers to work each day. The restaurant will be open seven days a week, meaning you have 28 shifts to fill. If each of your bussers works five shifts per week, you need six bussers.

At the Bar

Labor costs for the bar work a little differently. Lunch service is often less demanding than dinner. Most likely, you will only need one bartender at lunch, but you will need two, or even three, at dinner. I would go with the more conservative estimate of two dinnertime bartenders. One will cover the service well where your servers pick up the drinks for their tables, while the other takes care of bar patrons.

Using the formula we discussed for servers and bussers, you will have 21 shifts to cover each week. With each bartender working five weekly shifts, you need five bartenders. The final member of your front of the house staff is the host or hostess. Ideally, your managers and general manager should also work the floor each shift. This means that you will only need to have one host or hostess working per shift. With 14 shifts to fill each week and each host or hostess working five shifts, you need three hosts or hostesses on staff. In a 4,000 square foot restaurant, your restaurant’s front-of-the-house staff should include approximately twenty servers, six bussers, five bartenders, and three hosts or hostesses, for a total of 34 front of the house employees.

You might be wondering why I suggest having your front of the house employees work five shifts per week. You need to stay away from overtime – even accidental – while keeping your employees hungry for shifts. If they each work five full shifts per week, you can offer a few extra hours occasionally without having to worry about overtime costs. 

Geordy Murphy, with Christina Boyes, authored Opening A Restaurant From Inception to Reception. The post above is an excerpt.

As an MRM magazine columnist, Murphy will answer questions regarding restaurant management issues in future articles.  Send your questions to