The latest revolution in the restaurant business isn't taking place in Paris or London or even Berlin for that matter. It's happening in an odd location -- a non-descript industrial building on the outskirts of Nuremberg in Bavaria. Michael Mack, who got his start operating a profitable iron foundry in the city, has reinvented the way guests are served food and drinks and infused the culinary world with a bit of the Jetsons.
Mack, a stranger to the business of dining, has opened the world's first restaurant to feature fully automated ordering and table service. At the bistro 's Baggers, the waiter of old has been shown the door. And in a country known for being a service wasteland, it's uncertain he'll actually be missed. Instead of the classic, apron and tie-wearing waiter, each table has been connected by metal rails to the kitchen. Dishes like "organic beef in buttermilk" and "sausage en croute" glide along the rails to customers, propelled by gravity.
For the magic to work at all, Mack had to install the kitchen directly beneath the roof of the multistory restaurant. Customers order their meals using a touch-screen system that is placed at each table, and the entire restaurant is networked via a computer system. Customers' orders are registered upstairs in the kitchen and a computer in the cellar keeps track of supply stocks. The system also calculates the likely delivery times for drinks and meals at every table and keeps customers informed.
The setup is more reminiscent of a post office sorting room than a traditional restaurant, which might offend some gourmets. But Mack believes there is a global market for his new invention. His gravity feed rail system is patented in Germany and he is seeking protection for the invention internationally so that he can license it to restaurants abroad.
"Billions of euros in personnel costs could be saved using this system," Mack told SPIEGEL, saying he has no moral qualms with the job shedding effect it would have on the service sector if his invention ever caught on. "We dont need service at the table."
Of course 's Baggers isn't the only place in the service industry where man is being replaced by machine. So-called hotelomats allow travelers to check-in and pick up a room key 24-hours-a-day using their credit cards. Supermarkets in Germany and abroad are also increasingly replacing cashiers with automated check-out stands where customers can scan and pay for their own purchases.
Hobby cook Mack began his journey down the automation road after throwing a dinner party for friends. Frustrated as he tried to balance the food he had made for his dinner guests, he came up with the no-hands serving idea.
"It would be easier if the food arrived on a slide," he thought to himself. After consulting with engineer friends and rejecting their ideas, he came up with his own: Specially made hotpots would slide down 15-foot steel spirals, using the forces of gravity, before coming to a slow stop on rails slanted upwards at the customers' tables.
"The principle is so charming because it's so simple," says an enthusiastic Mack. Ever on the go, Mack believes he has already spotted scouts from McDonald's among his customers -- and he would like to do business with the fast food chain.
The bizarre mechanism certainly lures a large number of curious people to the drab, out of the way Nuremberg industrial park where it is located. Whether or not the guests will take to the restaurant, which opened earlier this month, is unclear. "We prefer a nice friendly waiter to this cold stainless steel system you can't talk to," one visitor complained recently in a posting on the Internet forum Restaurant-Kritik.de.
A comment from another observer demonstrates the automated service system can trigger other unsavory associations too: The spiraling rails remind her of the automated feeding system used to feed pigs on large farms.