Replaced By Restaurant Automation?

Technology isn’t new in the restaurant industry, but customer-facing technology has only more recently taken hold in certain segments. Mobile ordering—like Domino’s robust system—and kiosks for payment (like at Chili’s or Olive Garden) or bypassing the line (like at Panera) have been effectively (though not widely) adopted in casual dining and quick service. Starbucks has been wildly successful with app payments, mobile ordering, and digital versions of their reloadable payment cards. Fine dining establishments have even adopted tablets (like the iPad) for their wine lists to keep the easier to update.

All of these additions have helped improve the workflow of existing employees, and in some cases the improvement to the customer experience has driven more foot traffic, causing restaurants to hire even more help.

But technology adoption and automation are very different things. Streamlining the experience with digital is more about process—often just another way to do the same tasks, though sometimes it can cut out a step (or the need to interact with human staff), such as in payment processing or even ordering. While this has concerned some about potential job loss, the fact is someone still has to make the food, deliver it, and overall run the store.

The technology that really brings fear and concern to some in the industry is robotic automation. Beyond just digitization, robots can take over repetitive tasks, from the simple and mundane, to even fairly complex (as long as it’s repeatable). Back-of-house functions like flipping burgers are already being tasked to robots in restaurants like Pasadena-based CaliBurger. Robots that interact with customers are still rare, but can be found at some airport concessions, or even delivering pizza in New Zealand, courtesy of Domino’s. The creepiest iteration seems to be KFC’s Colonel Sanders-lookalike robot who took over drive-thru duties as part of a promotion (hopefully not as a regular role).

Interest in robotics within the restaurant industry certainly applies more toward the quick service end of the spectrum at this point, but in many cases is little more than a gimmick (aside from, perhaps, the actual flipping of burgers). The ability to consistently apply the technology beyond repetitive tasks (or glorified “place your order on this tablet” holders) means there is much to be done before there is a significant threat to the workforce. As it is, much of the deployed technology just frees up staff to work on other tasks of running the restaurant, including customer service. Or it makes the store run so much more effectively that business and staff grow to meet the needs of more customers.

But is there a looming threat that the robots will take over foodservice and put everyone out of a job? This sounds like an echo of the fear from the middle of the last century—not so much of robot uprisings but of automation making humans obsolete. In some roles and tasks, yes, that did happen. But it moved workers up to higher levels of manufacturing, programming, and working in concert with the machines. Early applications in restaurants have had the same result. Employees use these technological tools, and “train” customers how to use them as well.

In the end, the dining experience and, most importantly, the taste, quality, and creativity of the food will win over customers—and it’s unlikely that such consumer satisfaction would arise from automation alone. Even quick service restaurants have to adapt to the more eclectic tastes of consumers, so basic robotic fare would surely be too limited. The robots are coming—and even here. But they will be companions, not replacements, in our restaurants.

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