Technically speaking

Technically speaking

The featured topics in the September issue of Casual Dining Magazine are all driven by – and even exist thanks to – technology, hence calling it The Technology Issue.

What follows is a look at how marketing and social media, takeaway and delivery, and EPoS and apps are used in restaurants and how much they’ve impacted businesses. But, what if your entire concept is built around incorporating technology into the restaurant experience? A place where guests order their food from a tablet, ‘draw’ on the tables, play games with the person opposite them, and can even see into the kitchen through a live feed? I am, of course, talking about inamo.

What with this being The Technology Issue, it would have been a missed opportunity to not sit down with the guys driving a business where projectors and moving images really are part of the furniture.

It all started 13 years ago when co-founders Noel Hunwick and Danny Potter wanted to order another drink in a restaurant, but couldn’t get the attention of their waiter. A whole lot of imagination, hard work and three years later the first inamo opened on Wardour Street in Soho. This is where the original system continues to be in use – a single projector over a table of two and touch panels imbedded in the tables to enable customers to order food and drinks and play games on the table surface.

It is at the Covent Garden site, which opened in January 2016, where I meet Hunwick and managing director Lee Skinner (appointed in 2015, while Potter focuses on the technology side of the business, Ordamo). Having opened six years after the first, Covent Garden has a system that is quite different. Skinner explains that, while the Soho system is “a closed system”, the technology in Covent Garden has been “future-proofed” in order to be able to evolve. Instead of one projector for a table of two, Covent Garden has one for a table of six. Guests use a clicker to prompt and interact with the projector and the adoption of IFrames also means that any website can be projected onto the tables. No matter how advanced this restaurant already was in terms of using technology (Skinner makes a point that the Soho site was pre-iPhone and iPad), they continue to develop the brand.

Back to the future

Not only does inamo fit perfectly with our theme for this issue, it’s also very timely to be sitting down with Hunwick and Skinner, as the restaurant celebrates 10 years of trading this September. While it’s a pretty significant length of time for the guys to be running what is essentially a tech restaurant, they are continuing to learn about the possibilities of what they can offer, with new findings every other day.

“A couple of months ago, we realised that we could have a music app, so it shows the track that just played, the track now playing and what’s up next, because people kept asking what the music was,” says Hunwick. “That’s essentially a new feature we’ve been able to just drop into an IFrame on the table.”

A very purposeful development of the offering is the introduction of a Games Room in Soho, with Covent Garden to follow. The Games Room features a 150” wall projection and consoles including PS4 and Wii, so that private dining guests can play games, watch live TV and sports, do karaoke and project their own presentations. Not forgetting the restaurant tables, Hunwick and Skinner also reveal the next evolution for the brand, which is very much in line with how people are used to using technology today.

“We’re working on something that we’ve been trying to do for two-and-a-half years, which will make the table surface like a touchscreen,” says Skinner. “This is very difficult when you’re putting hot plates on top of it, and spillages. We think we’re getting close to a point where we can reach that, and that’s a game changer. People don’t really want to use a clicker now, they want to touch like their phone.”

“The problem with a lot of touch table tech is that what you’re shown is an empty table and one or two people using it, as opposed to what we see, which is 12 people with four kids playing against each other and mobile phones on the table and dishes coming thick and fast,” adds Hunwick. “Restaurants are an unusual case.”

Despite the challenges, the duo is striving for the day when a guest can use their bare finger over a clicker. The appeal that this should have with consumers is hard to argue with. As Hunwick mentions, these days smartphones are as common on a dining table as a knife and fork – or chopsticks, in inamo’s case. They have become more than a part of daily life and restaurants have had to adapt to them being in the customer experience. The idea of their presence in restaurants may have baffled some people just 10 years ago when the first inamo opened its doors, but consumers and operators have had to get used to technology being very much part and parcel of restaurants.

Teching it seriously

The increasing use of technology in restaurants seems to have divided the industry.

While one half is embracing the development of mobile payment methods, order tablets and delivery services, the other half is wary of the introduction of robot bartenders and artificially intelligent waiters. Some argue that it solves issues such as the lack of skilled chefs and the demand for convenience, which can help a business grow, while others complain that it is replacing the personable element of hospitality.

This debate is very recent compared to the launch of inamo, which, when it opened, also had its critics, from personal friends that claimed ‘people don’t want technology in a social environment’, to Joe Public and industry insiders.

“One of the biggest criticisms was that it was dehumanising,” recalls Hunwick. “We do still get people that may say that, but we think of it as a very social experience. It’s a talking point, it’s fun – you can draw on the tables! If you get to the point where you don’t want to interact with the table anymore, it’s not mandatory – you can just start a conversation and speak to the waiting team around you.”

Skinner remarks that they have considered robots as a way forward, with a nod to Californian restaurant Kang Nam Tofu House, which uses robots to help waiters bring the food to tables. With the increase of customer-facing technology in restaurants, not only in the USA but in the UK, inamo has kept an eye on what others are doing. Throughout our chat, the duo mention the rise of experiential concepts such as Bounce and Swingers, as well as the success of the McDonald’s kiosks and Coppa Club’s igloos, which has inspired their own winter activity in third site Camden this year.

“You’ve always got to look at your competition because there are no prizes for reinventing something,” says Skinner. “You have to do it as well as you can or better than they can. We still look at other businesses because they feed into our core business as a restaurant, but being a leader with the technology, it’s going to be very difficult for somebody to come and take that bit of the crown away.”

One of the concerns that is discouraging inamo from introducing robot waiters is that the impracticality may not be worth the extra publicity and could threaten to become a novelty rather than a tool to improve the business. It has learnt to move with caution. Launching a restaurant with lots of technology and opening a second with a different system means that the team has already experienced more than its fair share of hiccups.

Teething problems

One of the biggest complications with technology in any environment is the danger of it malfunctioning. While the overhead projectors and table tablets work seamlessly on the day I visit, like any business, this smooth sailing has not always been the case.

“When we put Soho together, we tested one projector unit in a bracket in a friend’s back room, who was actually the guy that created it,” recounts Hunwick. “We got 100 people over the course of a few months to test it, with greater and lesser degrees of success. We went from a test unit to a 62-cover restaurant pretty much overnight. In the first two weeks, he was on site all the time. We’d end up with blue screens like ‘computer says no’.”

Despite the start, Skinner claims that they’ve only had three issues at Soho in 10 years. It was launching a new system at Covent Garden that brought about the biggest headaches.
“It was all Ethernet-cabled into the Soho site, but when we moved the tech into Covent Garden, we moved to WiFi, and there were some unforeseen complications with the communication between the units with the frequency and WiFi spot,” starts Hunwick. “That took a while to figure out. We talk about it mildly now, but we were freaking out at the time.”

Skinner continues: “It probably took three or four months – and we were operating throughout! You can make tweaks and changes, but to get it to capacity, all these jigsaw pieces need to be put into place. There were dead spots – whether it was the WiFi bouncing off the walls outside or the WiFi from the flats above interfering. We had to re-hard cable every projector. I spent one afternoon on a ladder wrapping all of the cables in tin foil, because we thought it might make a difference! It didn’t, but we learnt all of that here, so we didn’t have these problems with Camden.”

From projectors and WiFi to touch tables and robots – all of these ideas and technological developments have played a role in the evolution of the inamo brand. Its association with technology, due to its overt front-of-house presence, lends itself to be involved in the talk about tech and its impact on the restaurant experience. With the speed that technology has grown since the launch of the first inamo, it has gone from the restaurant of the future to the restaurant of the very much now.

The food

We can talk about inamo’s technology for, quite literally, hours (the Camden site has illuminating loos, don’t you know?) – but, being a restaurant, this is not all it has to offer. The food menu consists of small and large plates of Japanese cuisine, such as nigiri, sashimi and takoyaki, designed to be shared, just like the tech experience itself. Through the use of a tablet, guests can order what they want, when they want, with the freedom to order extra dishes throughout their visit.
“Conceptually speaking, I do think the technology systems can work in a more sequential style of ordering, but the style we conceived was dishes arrive from the kitchen and are served to share,” explains Hunwick. “That is exactly how people order and, if anything, that’s driven average spend. People don’t tend to go crazy, but they’ll order a few things and then order a few more when they want them.”