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Can the restaurants of the future be good to people?

Can the restaurants of the future be good to people?

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As part of Verge Hack Week, we've invited great minds from around Vox Media to contribute their thoughts on the future of everything — from food to fashion to the written word. In this installment, we welcome Eater editor-in-chief Amanda Kludt.

The future of the restaurant industry — if all the startups and venture firms have their way — will be devoid of inefficiencies. Apps like Foursquare, Yelp, and many others aim to improve discovery, getting diners to the food they want when and where they want it. A swath of apps and sites — OpenTable, SeatMe, City Eats, Resy, Zurvu, and more — are battling for dominance in for paid and unpaid reservations with a good deal of venture money on the line. Priceline-owned OpenTable is getting into the payment game, and serious investors are also backing nascent payment apps, including Cover and Settle. Meanwhile a Chicago restaurateur hopes to change the model entirely with a new offering called Tickets which (among other features) treats restaurant reservations like concerts or theater — pay in advance in full, and pay more for premium times and seats. Others are finding ways to share Big Brother-style diner intelligence, providing restaurants with data on diners from nut aversions to anniversary dates, seat preference, and average wine spends. Behind the scenes, various services offer to connect farmers to restaurants, wine suppliers to sommeliers, and cut out other annoyances of the notoriously inefficient supply chain.

Health care, a higher minimum wage, maternity leave, paid sick leave, equity, and educational opportunities

In the near future, these new companies will battle for dominance, some will win out, and some may eventually offer cost savings to restaurateurs and time savings to consumers.

Or they may just "solve" a host of non-problems.

What would be a better but less-likely future involves a very different kind of change. It would be a future where the great thinkers and financiers in the field work not to make someone’s wait time shorter but to make restaurant workers’ lives better. It would be a future where a career in the restaurant industry — from the low end chains to the high end tasting menu palaces — is respectable and dignified. That would mean health care, a higher minimum wage, maternity leave, paid sick leave, equity, and educational opportunities. It would be a future where the industry is divorced from tipping culture and the subminimum wage, where servers don’t wildly outearn chefs.

And there is no easy fix to get from here to that future. Restaurants run on razor thin margins, and financing any of the above programs would require massive price increases for consumers (which some consumers have already seen with new surcharges), a rethinking of the business model, and a change in attitudes from management, workers, and diners. When faced with a forced paid sick leave law many New York restaurateurs balked, saying they would have to cut down on labor and increase prices. Many Seattle restaurateurs legitimately worry the new $15 minimum wage law will bankrupt them.

Yet a fairer future is possible. A kickass pizza delivery app is more likely, but the more important change is still possible. It will just require some influential leaders, thinkers, and doers to take some creative first steps.