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Tech Industry

For better service, automate the waiters

Storific lets you order food from your table, but the Paris-based start-up needs a more coherent sales strategy.

It seems like everyone wants a piece of the restaurant industry. I don't know why. It's a brutal business with low margins, high employee turnover, no way to reach all your customers at once, and generally stressed-out business owners. At least existing inefficiencies make for creative solutions and some good start-up ideas. OpenTable proved that you can improve the simple act of booking a table. Grubhub is trying to bring the same concept to deliveries and takeout. And now Storific is trying to streamline the function of the waiter.

Storific turns your iPhone (other platforms in development) into an order-taking waitbot. You step into your restaurant and as you're seated you get a code for your table. You put that into the app, and then you can see the establishment's menu on your phone, pick things you want, and have those orders delivered to the kitchen. You can also ping the system to send over water, a salt shaker, and so on.

It may appear that this business is about making things better for diners, by making it easier to send orders in. It may also look like it's good for waiters since it makes them more efficient (they can come by to chat up customers and don't have to come back to take an order unless the diner wants that) and thus could improve their tips. But the real benefit of this app is bottom-line financial. It brings impulse buying to restaurant dining. Want another order of fries? Press the button. A second mousse, rapidement? Click.

Storific saves you from having to actually talk to a waiter. Storific

Storific Founder Michael Cohen tells me that, "Curious customers order more. There's nothing to stop them." Since the service launched, he and his customers have learned that keeping the menu always accessible to the customer (on their smartphones) and making it easy to order, simply increases the size of the check.

Storific could also help a restaurant reduce its payroll, which is bad news for waiters. It's a bit early in the product's life for this impact to be seen, but it is a remote possibility if the app gets major adoption. (It's more likely that only a small fraction of any restaurant's customers would use the app.) And while Cohen built the app for stores and restaurants, it's now looking like other food service venues, such as hotel conference facilities, casinos, and sporting arenas (see also: Fango), are more keen to adopt it.

The app doesn't handle payments yet. Integrating with venues' register systems is a deeper challenge, apparently, than simply putting the Web-connected order-delivery terminal in the kitchen, a la Grubhub.

Storific's big challenge, though, is the same as it is for any food-service business: sales. Food service is largely a fragmented business (Olive Gardens and Hiltons notwithstanding), in which a strong local footprint has a reinforcing effect. OpenTable succeeded, in part, by coherently tackling local markets one after the other, not by hoping for universal uptake across the globe. Storific doesn't yet seem to have local discipline. Indeed, the company is based in Paris and has a few interested customers around the world. Cohen told me he's very eager to meet Silicon Valley investors and partners (Foursquare? Groupon? Taxi Magic?), but even in today's frothy funding environment, being based in France can be a block.

Here's a prediction: At some point, somebody's going to roll up these dining apps, and likely make a little money doing so. For ordinary people, it's too much to use Yelp to find a restaurant, Open Table to book it, Taxi Magic to get there, Foursquare or Facebook to tell your friends where you are, and then Storific to order food. Some of these apps are already linked (Yelp with OpenTable), but there's more room here for integration. Siri, which Apple acquired, is the beginning of this, but there's more opportunity here, for a start-up, or for one of the giant data aggregators like Google.