The Tea Terrace, a tea room and restaurant in the United Kingdom, is shaking up the service industry by introducing Theresa, a sixth-generation robotic server named after the country’s former Prime Minister Theresa May, into its four restaurants.
Now, a sixth-generation robot may not seem like such a new deal, but her appointment to The Tea Terrace’s wait staff should signal to restaurants on both sides of the Atlantic that industry-wide changes are on the horizon. But what are those changes, and how can business owners and managers get ahead of the curve?
Automation? Not so fast
Whenever a restaurant introduces a robotic element to its operations, workers and industry watchers both pine that automation is on the horizon. The robots are coming, they shout. But, in truth, robots are still not as effective as humans in the restaurant space.
Theresa’s purpose in The Tea Terrace isn’t to replace any of the restaurant’s workers. Instead, Theresa is there to supplement some of the work flow. For instance, she can deliver food to a table, but can’t serve multiple guests at a time. Even the Pizza Hut robot servers that debuted in Japan in 2016 couldn’t multi-task as effectively as their human counterparts.
As robots primarily are used for menial tasks like flipping burgers, it seems as though there is still time before restaurant workers will be expected to plug in rather than clock in for work.
Efficiency is still King
The restaurant industry is notorious for tight margins and laborious employee scheduling—a dichotomous duo that oftentimes works to the detriment of efficiency.
In order to supplement what restaurant owners are losing in staff efficiency, robots are frequently hired on as sidekicks. Even the most technologically advanced restaurants in Silicon Valley use robots as a means of providing a more efficient service to their customers.
Take Zume Pizza for example. Its business model is centered on efficiency. That’s why they cook their pizzas in front of your house and use a majority-robot back of house staff to make their product quickly and perfectly every time. This reduces time spent transporting their product and cuts down on product waste as well.
Even though robots have replaced Zume’s back of house staff, the company still hires humans to drive their pizza kitchen trucks and ensure that the production-line model they have runs smoothly. So, robots may hold one of the keys to driving efficiency in a business, but they certainly don’t hold all of them.
With the multitude of opportunities for robots to improve the day-to-day operations of a restaurant, it can feel daunting or debilitating as a manager watching all of your competitors implement the latest technology while you’re seemingly stuck in neutral.
One way for restaurant managers to get ahead of the robotic curve is to consider how technology can improve the quality of food or service their restaurant provides before seeking it out. By planning ahead, managers can forecast potential weaknesses in their business and implement a solution before the problem becomes unmanageable.
Supplementing menial tasks and utilizing robots to improve efficiency are fine goals, but they have real costs attached to them outside of purchasing the machine itself.
One of those costs is an increasing cultural reliance on technology to fulfill the needs of a restaurant. Robots can do everything from bookkeeping and inventory management to food production and service, making it easy for restaurant owners to sit back and watch their restaurant work. But, this sedentary management style is ripe for abuse.
One 2018 survey from 7Shifts, a restaurant scheduling software, found that good employees oftentimes leave restaurant work because of their manager’s work ethic. A culture that is reliant on technology to solve its problems and a manager who takes the backseat approach to running their restaurant is an equation for a disastrous work environment. In many cases, this can lead to high turnover rates and an increasingly less human workspace.