Posted on January 22 2019
For those of us old enough to remember the robot from the TV show Lost in Space (or young enough to still enjoy it now on syndication), wildly waving its arms to communicate, here’s a news flash: the world of robots has changed. Robots in the food industry have less to do with R2-D2 or Woody Allen’s Sleeper, than with, speed, automation, efficiency, and customer service. A robot in this context is any electronic tool that can perform repetitive operations. So, before you scoff and declare that robots serving food will never happen, look around. The future is now.
The Dawn of the Robot Age: The transition to robots in the food-service industry began at the very end of the 19th century when the first Automat opened: a restaurant where you could put a coin in a shiny futuristic machine and a meal was dispensed from a contraption that looked like something out of science fiction. True, there was a cook who prepared the food behind the scenes, but it most definitely seemed like a work of wondrous automation at the time. Fast-forward to about 20 years ago when quick-service workers first handed an empty cup to customers and told them to fill it on their own at the soda fountain. Restaurant operators saw this as a way to “outsource” labor to the customer, and that soda machine was a robot of sorts.
Today, food service automation is reaching new heights. If you’ve been to a McDonald’s at an airport recently, you’ve probably noticed the kiosks that allow you to order your food using a touch screen display and pick it up when it’s ready. Even more amazing, McDonald’s opened a test version of a fully automated restaurant in 2015 that featured robots that work 50 times faster than the average human. As the manager of the store says, “These things are great! They get their work done in a fast and orderly manner, plus they don’t ask for cigarette breaks.”
Or, as The Atlantic writes, “Robots Will Transform Fast Food,” and that might not be a bad thing.
Labor is a Challenge: Labor in many operations is a big obstacle to success; good labor is hard to find, maintain, and manage. Finding lower-skilled restaurant workers willing to work long hours on their feet for low pay has produced marginal service for customers as well as training and turnover headaches for managers and owners. Turnover is always a headache, absenteeism is a plague, and the culture of customer service seems to be fading fast. The main advantage of robotics and automation is that they create a more efficient working environment. Restaurants are a particularly inefficient business compared to, say, companies in the high-tech industry. Margins are low, your product has a short life-span time, and, on the labor side, there is a wide range of personnel requirements.
Incorporating robots to cook, clean and serve for restaurants: The idea of incorporating robots to cook, clean, serve and approve credit card transactions might be the greatest gift restaurant owners and managers can get. The constant need for hiring, training, scheduling and disciplining disappears. Overworked and testy cashiers replaced by electronic helpers can lower consumers’ expectations of courteous service and shorten waiting times. In other words, there are two main reasons food service operations are looking to automate. One is to cut labor costs by not having to pay human employees; and another is to increase efficiency, quality, sanitation, uniformity, etc.
Amazon Leads the Way: So, for instance, when earlier this year Amazon announced the introduction of “Amazon-Go” locations — grocery stores stocked with barcoded goods that don’t require check out – it seemed like the robot age had most definitely arrived. Similarly, in San Francisco’s Café X, a high-end coffee shop, there are no employees. Patrons approach a kiosk where they enter their drink order; then, a completely automated robot grinds, pours, foams and delivers a hot cup of coffee, after which the customer swipes a credit card to complete the transaction. Each day, one human being visits the location to refill the water, milk, and beans.
This giant step toward robots-in, people-out seems to fly in the face of a 2017 article entitled, “The Impact of Automation and Robotics on the Restaurant Industry,” which says, that, “While the implementation of automation seems inevitable, many still believe that implementation will be slow and that the human factor will never be fully removed from the dining experience.” The article goes on to say, however, that, “While both of these ideas are most likely true, there is no doubt that automation and robotics will have a big impact on the restaurant industry in the not so distant future.”
It appears that automation is inevitable in the food service industry as robots start spreading in restaurants across America. No one can be sure what effect robots will have on our lives, but it seems that to stay relevant, restaurant owners should start learning about automation trends instead of working against them. Certainly, in the fast-food sector, as robot chefs become cheaper and more efficient, automation will be the future. However, it’s unlikely that humans will be eliminated altogether and that’s important, especially in the restaurant industry where the relationship between staff and customers is so important. While a robot’s “brain” might work faster than a human’s, it’s the human element that makes a restaurant better and more desirable, and that’s one thing that will never change.