The Self-Serve Era Is Here

The burst in restaurant action is in counter service. Does this mean the end of sit-down service?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this New York Times story about the latest trend in restaurant service: to not have it. Well, to not have traditional service. The Panera, Subway, Chipotle model is going mainstream at higher-end eating spots. They call it “fine-casual” or “fast-fine” dining. It’s not new to the Twin Cities: Punch Pizza was fast-casual before it was cool, and Sameh Wadi’s World Street Kitchen is an example of a fine-dining chef opening a counter-service restaurant.

In the article, restaurateurs blame economic conditions. San Francisco has crazy expensive housing, so potential restaurant workers can’t afford to live by their workplaces, and $15/hour minimum wage becomes law there on July 1. Indeed, those are real factors—as are the increased costs for healthcare, commercial rent, etc. But I think this is about more than economics. Our standards for service have changed.

Tim Niver, Laurel Elm, and Adam Eaton are opening Meyvn any minute now, and Jami Olson’s Centro at Popul Vuh opens Friday, June 29. Both are run by excellent chefs, and both will have counter service. At Meyvn, you’ll order your bagel or sandwich at the counter, get a number, and your number will be called out when it’s ready. At Popul Vuh—same deal, except with tacos. 

“It’s convenient. People are looking for the most convenient place for their life. You see it in grocery stores where you grab it to go,” Niver told me. That’s the main reason restaurants are exploring formats built for speed and take-out but still bringing the quality. He said the convenience factor is the biggest, but the other economic factors are legit. “There’s some overreaction, but there is real cause for concern. This is an industry that is already not working very well for a [profit] margin.”

Everyone is trying to figure this out, even long-time fast-casual spots like Punch, which recently stopped bringing your food to your table in favor of a pager system, where the buzzer goes off and you get it yourself. (For what it’s worth, I think it cheapens the Punch experience—but I’ll probably get used to it and stop being annoyed.) Still, the biggest question I have when I go to one of these spots is: How much work am I supposed to do? Do I have to clear the plates after I’ve paid $10 for a sandwich and tipped 10 percent at the counter? “We’re talking about how we explain it at the counter,” said Niver. 

I think there is an opportunity for quality service at a counter. I ate at The Naughty Greek last week, and the food was excellent, plus a manager came to my table to check if things were going well and to offer me another glass of wine. I know they don’t always do this—it gets busy—but it was nice. Meyvn will be trying to extend your visit as well, Niver told me. “For dinner, we’re going to try to be ‘counter plus’ with a handheld computer and a chip reader roaming the room. Once you’re seated, it’s not as if service ends.” So you could get another drink, get dessert, and extend your stay. “We’re going to try to have service at the bar, where you sit at an open bar seat and order whatever you want. We’ll see if it works,” he said.

I find it exciting, and I’m a guy who loves excellent sit-down restaurant service. Convenience is king for my family, when we’re trying to eat out quickly, but for me, I value the total experience. We’ll see if the next generation of service can capture that magic, too.