DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Robots have replaced workers at plenty of factories over the last half-century. Now, they're moving into service jobs, handling check-in at hotels and check out at the grocery store, and they are showing up at restaurants. Stacey Vanek Smith from our Planet Money team reports.
STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: I'm in Framingham, Mass., at an Uno's Pizzeria. The doors are just about to open for the lunch rush and manager Andy Sklar is giving his servers a pep talk and telling them about the LTO's - the limited time offers.
ANDY SKLAR: Everybody know what the main theme of our summer LTO will be?
UNIDENTIFIED SERVER: Lobster.
SKLAR: Lobster - lobster is back.
VANEK SMITH: The pizza dough is rising; the tomato sauce is simmering, and Jorge Castillo is walking through the restaurant snapping the batteries into the backs of the tablet computers that sit on every table.
JORGE CASTILLO: It turns on by itself. It takes a couple minutes for it to turn on.
VANEK SMITH: The Ziosk looks like a sturdy iPad, and it's going into thousands of chain restaurants across the country - Chili's, Applebee's, Olive Garden and Pizzeria Uno. It's 11 o'clock - time to open the doors.
I get a table because I want to see how these machines are changing the jobs of the people who work here.
TOM: How you doing? My name's Tom, by the way. Just so you know, drink specials are right here. We also...
VANEK SMITH: Then Tom does something you may have experienced at airports or grocery stores - he gives operating instructions for the machine - the machine that is doing part of his job.
TOM: This is Ziosk. You can order appetizers, desserts and drink refills on it.
VANEK SMITH: And you can pay on it. No waiting for the check. There's also a call server button. If you push it, the waiter is supposed to rush over. One server I talked to called this the kill-myself button. I tried it out. It worked.
TOM: Still need a minute or two to decide on food?
VANEK SMITH: I think I know. Could I get the guacamole burger?
TOM: Guacalicious burger?
VANEK SMITH: Yes.
TOM: How would you like it cooked?
VANEK SMITH: The result of the Ziosks has been remarkable. Customers spend around 10 minutes less at a table, and they spend more money. Dessert sales go up by around 30 percent. One theory is that customers feel like waiters will judge them if they order dessert right after they've eaten a huge pizza. But when an image pops up in front of them with a discrete order now button, they're hooked, says manager Andy Sklar.
SKLAR: No matter how well I could describe bread pudding with salty caramel sauce, nothing can do it justice like that picture with the ooey gooey caramel dripping off of the cake and the ice cream in the background, right?
VANEK SMITH: With Ziosk, customers come and go faster, they order more, tips go up. But there's another way Ziosk is changing server's jobs - it's measuring everything they do. After customers eat, they rate their servers, and those ratings get posted every day. I walk with server Jorge Castillo to check his score.
CASTILLO: This is my name, Jorge Castillo.
VANEK SMITH: His name is at the bottom of the list, highlighted in pink.
CASTILLO: My Ziosk score came to 3.5.
VANEK SMITH: So what does the pink highlighter mean?
CASTILLO: The pink highlight means the people who basically need to improve.
VANEK SMITH: Oh, I'm sorry. Oh...
CASTILLO: (Laughter) No, that's a good thing.
VANEK SMITH: I'm sorry.
CASTILLO: That's a good thing. That just shows me that I just need to get - do better. (Laughter).
VANEK SMITH: I asked manager Andy Sklar how seriously he takes these numbers.
Have you ever, like, fired anybody based on their scores?
SKLAR: I've never fired anyone based on a survey score, per se. I will tell you that the Ziosk allows me to look at a long-term trend, which could lead to, you know, helping me make an employment decision on a particular person.
VANEK SMITH: And this isn't even the biggest fear for servers. The biggest fear is that eventually the Ziosk will take over the job entirely. Uno denies this; so did all of the chains I talked to. They said they are not firing servers and the Ziosks are there to help them, not replace them. But restaurants are doing more business without hiring more workers. And the future seems clear to the customers, says former Uno server Evan Monty.
EVAN MONTY: They would make jokes about, you know, oh, pretty soon there'll be conveyor belts coming through, and we won't need you here. And, you know, they were joking around, but it was a good point. At what point do you become the food runner, and then at what point do you stop making tips?
VANEK SMITH: I'm ready to go. I swipe my card, and two seconds later, the Ziosk prints out a little receipt. It's all so easy. I leave without saying goodbye. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.