In January 2023, Wakefield Research partnered with Square to investigate the current and prospective future of the restaurant industry. The survey included 2,000 consumers and 500 restaurant owners in the U.S.
One of the major trends to stand out was automation. With over 30% of restaurants surveyed being short-staffed for at least two years, many were exploring automation to help current staff and increase efficiency. Surprisingly, 95% of restaurateurs agreed that increased automation in the BOH would free up employees for more important tasks, and 38% are moving ahead to automate operational activities.
In response to this growing trend, you may have seen the headlines that suggest robots are taking over restaurants. While this may be a slight to extreme exaggeration, automation is indeed enhancing operations, and it isn’t going away anytime soon, if ever.
Let’s explore what restaurant automation looks like in 2023.
The Labor Shortage Expands Automation
While the extreme labor shortage is softening, restaurants are still experiencing staffing challenges that impact the customer experience. With the coming summer season quickly approaching, that impact is expected to worsen.
Robots are filling the gaps.
Nala Robotics saw the writing on the wall and has been creating robots for the restaurant industry ever since. Solutions include a robotic chef that preps, cooks, and stores pizza for delivery and pickup. Spotless is an autonomous dishwasher that uses machine learning to scrub, clean, dry, stack, and store dishes, glasses, cookware, and cutlery.
The Wingman is an autonomous fry station that picks up and loads frying baskets with chicken wings, French fries, and other items. Nala Chef is an AI and ML-powered multi-cuisine chef that can cook an infinite number of recipes, replicating them with exact precision. The more it cooks, the more it learns.
Some of the other industry leaders include Bear Robotics and Miso Robotics in California, Pudu Robotics in China, and Austin-based Richtech Robotics.
You may have seen the robotic servers that play host and busser and deliver food and drinks to the table. Some even possess faces like cats and purr. According to Fortune, tens of thousands of these robots are used in dining rooms around the world.
A few of these restaurants include Noodle Topia in Michigan and The Sushi Factory in Florida. These robots filled a gap when restaurants were understaffed and proved beneficial, giving servers more time to spend with customers, reducing costs, and even promoting business. Not every brand, however, considers them a successful addition. Chili’s introduction of a robot server in 61 of its restaurants was canceled, finding that the robot got in the way of servers, and 58% of guests didn’t feel it improved their experience.
Just outside of Fort Worth, Texas, McDonald’s opened its first largely automated and mostly non-human-run location at the end of 2022.
Rising Concern About an Experience Devoid of Human Interaction
While some restaurants went all out on automation, making humans a relic, most robots are designed to enhance operations and create opportunities for more interaction between humans and customers. Operators have increased speed and enhanced accuracy by using robotic blenders, frying arms, and other automated technologies.
BOH employees gain time to accomplish tasks they could never fit into their shifts before, like verifying inventory, double-checking standards, and updating recipes. Mezli, in San Francisco and San Mateo, is one of the only restaurants run entirely by robots.
Addressing Your Staffs Concerns
Workers have long been concerned about being replaced by robots.
Since the 1800s, fear of automated work processes became apparent, with some of the first jobs to transfer from people to robots being assembly-line tasks like spray painting. Today, these AI robots also perform welding and mounting. It was determined, however, that people were still required to supervise the machines and, while robots performed these tasks, humans focused on more skilled work like maintaining factory equipment and analyzing data collected by robots.
It’s easy to believe that robots will drastically disrupt the labor market; after all, chatbots have been touted as the new and more efficient customer service representative. They even made it to the 2022 Winter Olympics, cooking and preparing meals and serving cuisine in the press cafeteria.
However, according to research conducted at Brigham Young University, people tend to greatly exaggerate the number of robots replacing humans. And, of course, attention-grabbing headlines don’t help. According to BYU sociology professor Eric Dahlin, robots aren’t displacing workers but rather generating more value for human labor.
Are restaurants using robots?
Restaurants are increasingly experimenting with robots due to the continued labor crunch, with varying degrees of success. Karthik Namasivayam, director of hospitality business at Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business, told Fortune he expects restaurants to lean heavily on robots as the cost of technology falls, and the cost of human labor rises. One day, he foresees only about 30% of restaurants using human servers, and those restaurants will be considered more luxurious.
Will robots replace restaurant workers?
According to Aaron Allen & Associates, up to 82% of restaurant positions in the fast-food industry could be replaced by robots, saving them more than $12 billion in annual wages. Other restaurants, such as fine dining, casual, and family style, rely heavily on the experience and human interaction.