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The restaurant at the beginning of the knowledge universe

This article appears in the issue January 1998 [Volume 7, Issue 1]

Welcome to The Restaurant at the Beginning of the Knowledge Universe (RBKU) where anything and everything is available on the menu. It is the only restaurant in the world where you can consume the finest French truffles and Beluga caviar with a splash of Dom Perignon while the person sitting next to you works his way through 300 pounds of Spam. That's right, when we say everything and anything, we mean it.

To help us decide what to serve you, please fill out the following patron profile. Are you a vegetarian? Do you have any allergies? Intolerances? What do you like to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner? When do you like to eat and how much? Do you like to snack between meals? Do you want the same breakfast during weekdays and something different on weekends? Do you have recipes that you would like prepared for you? Do you want a special menu on holidays?

Too hungry to answer all those questions at the moment? No problem, simply order anything you want. We'll track your preferences over time and soon learn to anticipate your needs. We can even help you control your intake of salt, fats or calories and ensure that you eat a healthy, nutritional, highly satisfying diet all year. How do we do all this, you ask, when you're traveling to far-flung places around the globe, even while you're on the plane? That, my friend, is the stuff of legend.

But it all started with a vision--a vision that since the world produces more than enough food to feed everyone, no one should go hungry. In fact, with few exceptions, the world produces enough of everything to meet the demand for any particular item. In addition, the RBKU wanted to eliminate the time it takes to shop for groceries or to decide where to go for dinner and what to have, and to make mealtime more convenient and enjoyable.

To make the vision a reality, management embarked on a mission to answer the following questions: How do we know how to deliver the right meal to the right person at the right time and place? How do we know how to make the meal, what ingredients are required and where to get them?

The answer to those questions led to several historic innovations in the restaurant business: active profiles, proactive custom delivery, learned linking, active/passive ordering, context awareness, capturing creativity and resource mapping.

* active profiles--Patrons have the option of filling out an extensive questionnaire or just ordering and letting the system learn about them as they go along. The key capability here is that the profile can be updated every time patrons receive a meal and can capture specific feedback, such as the cream sauce was too thick or there was too much fennel.

Typically patrons will fill out only the essentials that cover allergies and other medical issues such as fat content, cholesterol levels, etc. But in time many add more details as they discover that the service improves dramatically. Some road warriors, in fact, are at the point where they never have to order anything because they are willing to sacrifice spontaneity for convenience.

  • proactive custom delivery--You never have to call ahead or wait in line; your meal is delivered to you no matter where you are. That, of course, does place a burden on patrons to let us know when they'll be traveling. We've linked into some calendaring software that helps us keep track of everyone. We also have a picnic basket service when patrons are traveling to places not served by the RBKU.

  • learned linking--Patrons can create their meal from any starting point. For instance, many patrons see an appetizer or dessert they want, but have trouble deciding on an entree. The RBKU can help them by adjusting recommended items as customers order a la carte. We do that by tracking the preferences of patrons with similar profiles and matching their ordering patterns with yours.

  • active/passive ordering--Once the RBKU embarked on the new approach to food service, we encountered two distinct types of demand in the market--recurring and spontaneous. Meeting the needs of both requires different skills, and yet they must be equally accessible to the customer. For instance, the RKBU never knows if a given patron will spontaneously decide to order something different for lunch one day after a record-setting series of tuna fish sandwiches. The passive part is being ready with the tuna fish sandwich as usual without receiving an explicit order from the customer; the active part is responding immediately to a change in the order.

  • context awareness--This capability was invented after patrons requested help with meals they cook themselves. Many of our patrons enjoy creating their own meals either as professional chefs or as a hobby. This service enables the RBKU to monitor what they cook and to provide complementary items as side dishes and desserts, in addition to table-setting enhancements such as centerpieces and linen. The context includes not only the food, but the ambiance as well. Is it a romantic dinner for two or lunch for the soccer team? As a result, patrons can concentrate on what they do best and be confident that the rest of the meal will be equally well-received.

  • capturing creativity--The chefs of the RBKU constantly experiment with innovative combinations of ingredients that span cultures, formats and ingredients. The RKBU has implemented tools for our kitchens that capture and record those innovations. More importantly, the system engineers are working toward capturing the process of innovation in our kitchens. Every day chefs make creative decisions to invent new dishes. Capturing that process and storing the results as decision maps will enable expertise sharing across the entire organization.

  • The goal is to make all our chefs innovative and prolific. They will gravitate not to the lowest common denominator, but the highest individual skill level in any given area. That also provides greater flexibility. Management can allocate chefs from entrees to sauces or desserts depending on demand. Once the system is stabilized in operations, the RBKU will expand it to all our employees so that each functional area benefits from the highest level of expertise available.

  • resource mapping--With so much stuff under our management and so many people depending on us, the RBKU found it necessary to create a detailed map that enables us to manage supply and demand. That is critical on the supply side--one of the greatest challenges of getting started was simply auditing our vast inventories and tracking the flow of goods in and out of our system. Similarly, without the ability to aggregate demand, the RBKU would be incapable of operating its mass-customization services.

    Free tour and wine tasting.

    The innovative systems in place at RBKU were deployed in series, as they were conceived and developed. However, the RBKU did have the foresight to think holistically about the problem and made every effort to take an evolutionary approach to implementation. New capabilities are expected--in fact, demanded--so that information is continually used more effectively by both the system and the organization. If you'd like to see any of this in practice, please join us for our free tours and wine tasting every Saturday; your favorite vintage will be decanted and waiting for you.


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