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The Convergence of the Internet and the Service Industry

G.K. Darby - writing on the future of themed restuarants




A few days ago I walked out of an orientation meeting for an upstart New Orleans restaurant that is destined to become some kind of wacky footnote to the excesses of the Net 90's. The internet age, a thing that I so desperately have been trying to avoid, hit me square in the throat that day.

Indeed, one of the reasons I moved to New Orleans was to escape internet millionaires, cell phones, power point presentations and absolute money trivializing absolutely.

My restaurant orientation began with a power point presentation by the founder of the restaurant, an underage software millioniare who was in "semi-retirement." Complete with Bill Gates haircut, the owner giggled his way through an explanation of what he called the restaurant or concept or experience or edgy-hip experience or adult Disney or theatrical edgy experience or "Cirque Du Soile on steroids." That's an exact quote. His eyes lit up child-like, mystic, geeking out....

While the owner/founder illustrated his conceits with computer projections and power point techno music -- dishwashers, servers, housekeepers and hosts sat silent and watched. He showed us "3-D walk throughs" of all his concept restaurants. There was a retro supper club in Palm Springs that "is a return to the supper clubs of the 30's and 40's, updated by a 50's brat pack feel." Computer animations showed huge bubbling columns of water, Technicolor furniture and a wide open bar that looked like it was lifted from Pulp Fiction's Jack Rabbit Slim's. There was a dinner theater, now in construction in San Francisco, anchored by a glass, back-lit bar and a theater space that was supposed to be a "theater for the MTV generation" so huge that it could and will host anything from Cirque Du Soile to "hip-edgy Broadway productions."

There was the yet-to-be-opened, on-the-bleeding-edge Times Square restaurant in New York called the Idea Lab -- ironic since the company called Idealab, which is part owner of bankrupt eToys, just closed its Silicon Valley office -- where patrons sat in frosted glass booths surrounded by projected computer media sponsored by Yahoo (a partner in the venture) and ... suddenly the owner was interrupted by one of his future employees: "What are the glass things for?" she asked in a definitive 9th ward 'Nawlins accent. Without pause he ignored her question, and went on to describe a giant dance floor dome that descended, by motorized cables, from the ceiling.

My eyes wandered from the dishwasher with his mouth open to the housekeepers who didn't speak English to the managers standing against the back wall who clearly didn't buy it, but were going to collect their salary anyway, to the brown nosing servers, nodding with each bullet point. A thick handbook sat in front of me with the word "experience" written fifteen times on each page. I thought about all the interesting San Francisco people who were forced to move to Oakland because of skyrocketing dot.com rents, the cleansing of Times Square and here we were -- next stop New Orleans.

Time to show us a 3-D walk through of the New Orleans concept. The concept,
the owner said, was developed by "multiple layers of designers" and every last detail of the experience was taken into account. There was a Manager of Ideas (actual corporate title) who oversaw everything in the concept. On top of that, the owner was personally involved in every design decision down to the last table lamp. "Nothing was rubber stamped," he said.

The mouse clicked, the Windows Media Player hummed and there it was on the screen, a computer generated picture of the restaurant we had all just seen in person, except the streets were clean, the people on the sidewalks were well-dressed, and everything looked terribly hip and expensive. Someone said, "The people all look the same."
The owner said, "This is the building you all just saw in person."

The animation zoomed in through the front door to reveal blood red walls, chandeliers, holes in the ceiling. "Deconstructionist decadence," he said. "Faded elegance. This restaurant is all about New Orleans. It's all about decadence, which is New Orleans."
His eyes seemed to hollow out when he said the word "decadence" as if he was remembering some far off moment. Yes, the dining rooms were perfect expressions of opulent poverty. There was the absurd affluence and gentle starvation every citizen of New Orleans knows all too well. The design team and manager of ideas had done a fine job.

When the owner's presentation finished, we clapped, the owner smiled and the meeting was turned over to an enthusiastic human resources manager who made us role play with lemons. She told us that the lemon was our special guest. We needed to learn about our lemon, our guest. We needed to make our lemon feel apart of the experience. We needed to remember what our lemon liked to drink and so on and so on.

The human resources manager explained that she majored in human relations. When someone said that their lemon liked dirty martinis the human resource manager asked, "What's that?"
Indeed, the company was in the business of creating theatrical participatory experiences and the servers were key to weaving the transient interplay of food, atmosphere and theater into a united piece of corporate art. We needed to buy into it. One of the bullet points said, "Our employees need to embrace our values."
The next bullet point said, "We encourage open and frank debate."
Then the power point screen said, "BREAK."

We had 30 minutes for lunch. I walked outside, and met up with a friend, a good friend who was a very good waiter, a good person and a life-long citizen of New Orleans. 'Who will go to this restaurant?' I asked. 'It doesn't matter', he said. The founder has the money and this is his toy. He doesn't care if people come to the restaurant. The managers don't care because they're on salary. You should care because without customers you won't make money'.
'What should I do? ' I asked. I couldn't work for something like Disneyland much less a Disneyland for hipsters funded by a semi-retired software millionaire. Some people buy cars. Some people travel. Mr. T, when he hit it big, bought a mansion in an old gentrified Chicago suburb and had all the trees on his property cut down. Still others create escapist theme restaurants. And the rest of us work.
"Leave," my friend said.
So I left.
I told one of the managers that I would have to pass on their experience. I left them in there talking to lemons. Meanwhile, I needed a job -- something much more than a dream, an experience or an extension of someone's stock inflated ego - I needed something that would pay the rent.
© G Darby 2001
email:gkdarby@earthlink.net
or Darby



G K Darby was an early electronic web person who lost all faith after speaking at a conference about electronic media at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica in 1995. Ever since he has been working in restaurants and publishing paper books.
(Garrett County Press, http://www.gcpress.com) Phone:USA 504.598.4685


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