IMPERSONAL TOUCH

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Across from Gate 73 at Newark airport there used to be Vino Volo. I would go there every time on my way to Ireland as the layovers were anywhere from four to five hours at times. October 19th was the last time I was there - the time I was on my way to Berlin to visit my daughter.

In times past, I sat at a table by the windows, plugged in my iPhone to charge, and would start to write my post as I waited for my glass of wine to arrive. The clipboard menu in front of me had scant vegetarian offerings. I selected potato soup and Greek cheesecake. That was then.

Today I was looking forward to sitting at a table by the window. My phone was at 17% and I was hungry, having skipped dinner last night and both breakfast and lunch today. I glanced around by Gate 73 and saw a restaurant which had the same walls with square cutouts. The wine bottles were there but above the bar, the walls were painted gold and wine bottles were nowhere to be seen.

There was a guy floating around dressed in black with a badge on his upper arm reminiscent of airport security or something official. I asked whether this used to be Vino Volo. He said it did but not anymore. The changes started two months ago, not long after my last visit there.

The tables were different. White with uncomfortable chairs. On every table I noticed something I have never seen in a restaurant – iPads with menus, flight information, and Internet access. I intended to have a glass of wine and soup. The server showed me how to go about using the device on the table. I asked if there was any Nero d’Avola wine as this is the wine I first discovered at Vino Volo. He did not know what I was talking about. I told him I would look around and see if I find something to my liking.

Eating in the digital age. The entire scene was foreign to me. It took me a good 15 minutes to adjust to the change. I wanted the old place back. The place where people actually talked with you, even if it was small talk. The guy glanced my way from a neighbouring table and asked if I found anything. I said I was looking for something vegetarian – other than a salad. He pointed to the raclette panini which I had already noticed and was going to order for lack of any other options.

He walked over to assist me in the selection and payment. He pressed some buttons and asked for my credit card. Noticing an automatic 18% tip as the option, I told him I wanted to pay with cash. He said that was not an option. It was either credit card or airline miles. Wanting him to go away so I could select a tip amount less than the default amount, I told him I would do it myself. He kept insisting he could slide my card for me. I insisted more and he went away. I wondered why I should tip at all. They were not providing me any service other than delivering my food to me. The entire experience was odd.

The wait was long for a panini and few pieces of lettuce on the side. I picked up the fork and knife to cut into my meal and was surprised when I noticed the knife was plastic whereas the fork was stainless steel. Of course I inquired and was told it had something to do with airport safety. So, a fork was safe, I assumed, and could do no harm.  

The meal was nothing spectacular and left me feeling hungry afterwards. Nobody came by to ask if I needed anything else or to ask if everything was to my liking. Nobody came to wish me goodbye or any of the niceties one usually sees at restaurants. The personal touch was missing, now replaced by robots – iPads in this case.

As I walked out, I noticed other new restaurants in the terminal. An incredulous look crossed my face as I noticed restaurant after restaurant with the same iPads on tables - as if we need more devices at a table already filled with personal distractions. The people sitting at the tables were immersed in their own devices as well, the communication missing.

Today’s experience was disturbing. Is this the state of restaurants of the future – the ones outside of airport terminals? Will iDevices replace the human component?