Appy Meal

The carpet at the Imperial, Exeter.

We’d noticed Wetherspoon pubs pushing their order-at-your-table phone app but didn’t feel moved to download it until Bailey’s parents started raving.

They first used it in Exeter the other week and rang us up to tell us about it, so excited were they. Bailey’s Mum:

The bar was six deep and we were knackered and then we saw the thing on the table advertising the app, so I downloaded it. We ordered drinks and food and they arrived in minutes, no queue! Brilliant.

Then, during the house move, we ended up in Spoons with them a couple of times, where they kept up the propaganda campaign. Bailey’s Dad seemed puzzled as to why we’d keep putting ourselves through the misery of queueing at the bar when such a wonder existed.

And that’s a good question — what had stopped us?

For one thing, we had some ethical qualms — won’t this put bar staff out of work? Isn’t full self-service automation the next stop? (Probably not.) At-table ordering via apps and touchscreens has been taking off in US fast food chains in recent years (probably where Mr Martin got the idea, being a known McDonald’s worshipper) and similar debates have been underway there, too.

More selfishly, we had our doubts about how well it might work for fussy drinkers like us — would it make ordering guest ales easier, presenting them in a neat list with all the info, or simply give the basic core drinks list?

I kept thinking about all this, perhaps because I had some responsibility for procuring and maintaining electronic point of sale systems (EPOS) in my last job, and so, on Wednesday, I cracked and gave it a go.

My chosen testing ground was The Imperial in Exeter, a beautiful building so vast that (first hurdle) the app kept warning me I was 142 yards away from the pub when I was actually sat at one end. The app downloaded in seconds over the pub’s own free wi-fi and was incredibly easy to use — it was clearly tested thoroughly on real people before roll out. For ordering food, it worked brilliantly. Being on my own, with work papers and laptop, I loved the idea of being able to get served without the usual anxious glancing back and forth from bar-staff to table, worrying whether my stuff was about to get half-inched.

As suspected, though, it fell down on drinks. The Imperial has two bars each with different ales and the app ought to be a way to show picky ale drinkers everything on offer in one neat list. As it is, I could only order the cross-chain standards (Doom Bar, Abbot, Ruddles) so I ended up having to do the anxious bar dash anyway.

And, unless I’m missing something, there’s no way to apply the CAMRA voucher discount. Probably a deal breaker for many, but probably also on the project planner for a future version: e-vouchers with a pin code, saving on all that glossy paper, perhaps?

As I sat there, Billy no mates, I pondered those ethical questions and concluded that, frankly, if you’re in a Wetherspoon pub, you’ve already crossed the line — Spoonsland is a realm of pure capitalism, for better or worse. There’s also something pleasing, not to say amusing, about the idea of Tim Martin, arch Euro-sceptic, quietly introducing something like Continental-style waiter service to English pubs.

Overall, I was impressed, and can imagine using it for ordering the chicken wings to which I’m addicted, if not drinks. While that’s not quite the sci-fi future they promised us it’s pretty astonishing all the same.

Further reading: this article on the pros and cons of the app from the Independent, published back in March, is an interesting read that takes a balanced view.

10 thoughts on “Appy Meal”

  1. I’ve used it two or three times and in each case the service has been very efficient. However, I have heard reports of 45-minute waits and being completely forgotten when things get very busy.

    As you say, it’s of limited use to the beer enthusiast as it doesn’t list guest ales and doesn’t allow you to use the CAMRA discount vouchers. It also doesn’t let you request variations to dishes such as “no peas with that, please”.

    At least on the drinks side, it doesn’t put anyone out of a job, as bringing drinks to the table is more labour-intensive than handing them over the bar. Waiter service was largely abandoned in pubs two generations ago for precisely that reason.

    1. Unless it’s a community-owned local…
      Last pub I can remember waiter service in was the Lounge Bar of the Willowbank, in Liverpool – they even had bells to call the waiter still in the mid-80s.
      Think the last ‘Spoons I was in was in Truro at Easter, where this app would have been great – I was driving anyway, and the normal beer drinkers in our party all had soft drinks – we had only popped in for lunch.
      In most pubs, interaction with the bar staff is part of the fun, but ‘Spoons is much more a standard retail experience than a pub visit, so it doesn’t matter.

      1. The Willowbank! I used to house share really nearby with a bunch of people, it was our local. We were all aware of the bell pushes, but assumed they were decorative. So one evening one of us pressed one and we were astonished when one of the bar staff rocked up at our table a few seconds later.

  2. This idea has been knocking around in the on trade for a few years without anyone really nailing it, so its good to see someone big like JDW getting behind it. Worries about putting bartenders out of work are misplaced, as you say the app can’t and never will cover everything especially more detailed requests/discussions with barstaff.

    Even if 20-30% of orders can be captured via app, it frees up this time and space at the bar for those who do want to talk to barstaff, have a look at what’s on special or just enjoy the traditional elbow scrum and eye contact game of playing “Who’s next?” at the bar !!

  3. It is possible to order food to the wrong pub, because it’s a favourite and you’re *ahem* not entirely capable of peak focus when ordering… although that also opens the other possibility.

    Within seconds of ordering my first meal via the app I realised that with familiarity comes great power. Knowing from experience which table number my vicar/old teacher/mechanic/nemesis is sat at provides the opportunity to expend very little money (couple of quid for a side order) and have random food delivered unexpectedly to their table, anonymously. Of course, one should never cross the line into stalking. But randomly issuing garlic bread to a table you’re not sat at could be all sorts of good clean fun. 🙂

  4. JDW’s most consistent failing is not having enough staff behind the bar. Surely this adds to that problem by taking staff away from the bar to serve to tables?

    1. The vast majority of orders are for food which are brought by kitchen staff anyway. Someone using it just for drinks really are at the mercy of the bar staff.

  5. Love this app more than I imagined I would! Got it recently after recently getting a new phone that had space to download apps.

    I’m sure I’ve got a drink quicker with the app than going to the bar on occasion.

    A godsend for people ordering food on their own – especially miles away from the bar, people with luggage, the less able.

    Though must admit I’ve also used it just out of laziness, wanting to keep hold of a table in the sun or wanting to stay with my friends rather than missing the conversion at a busy bar.

  6. A big issue is short measure – ale brought to your table, big head, and you ask for it to be topped up.
    On the one occasion I’ve used the app, the barman put my half-litre down, told me to fuck off when I asked for it to be topped up, and ran off into a crowd of punters.
    The duty manager failed to support me in my complaint.
    I’ll never use it again !

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