If you can automate food preparation as much as possible, you will reduce waste and grow your margins. While small operators might believe having a kitchen robot is an impossible expense, the pandemic may be changing that. The growth of virtual restaurants – and the creative approaches to challenges that operators have found during the pandemic – have increased the number of offsite options that can bring automation within reach for smaller operators. If you have food preparation tasks that could benefit from automation, consider other businesses in your area that likely have the same needs. At a time when so much food preparation is being done away from a restaurant’s public-facing location, you may be able to share the expense of a robotic machine based in an offsite kitchen that can churn out precisely chopped ingredients on a larger scale for multiple businesses.
Make way for automation
The pandemic has triggered what many journalists have dubbed the Great Resignation – an exodus of employees from the restaurant industry (and well beyond it) who are demanding better pay and more flexibility in response to the challenges of the times. In the short term, restaurant operators desperate for help in serving guests may bend to some of these pressures. But with the long-term sustainability of offering such benefits in question, restaurant brands have accelerated their investments in automation. To be sure, the human element is still an important aspect of service for many restaurants, but amid the current labor shortages, high employee turnover and increased concerns over safety and working conditions, why wouldn’t an operator be tempted to bring in a robot that never needs a break, complains, gets sick or asks for a raise? While quick-service restaurants are a natural place for this to begin, the automation trend won’t stop with them. What’s more, the lessons quick-service brands learn (and the degree of profitability they generate) as a result are likely to motivate restaurants across the board to incorporate automation in new ways. A recent Forbes report pointed to automation efforts already well underway at McDonald’s (AI-powered drive-thrus), White Castle (robotic fry cooks), Domino’s (robotic delivery through Nuro) and Taco Bell (fast touch-screen ordering and pickup with minimal interaction with staff), to name just a few. The accelerated adoption of automation could also accelerate its financial accessibility to industry segments beyond quick service. Where might your business most benefit from automation? Look for more opportunities to adopt it in the New Year.
While restaurant technology had been steadily gaining ground before Covid, it appears to have changed many processes for good. During a recent online discussion presented by the National Restaurant Association, industry leaders weighed in on the most important tech-enabled shifts that have become permanent in the past two years. Among them are the online cashless ecosystem for restaurants – it’s now a customer expectation to be able to order via an app or a delivery service, no cash needed. Flexibility to order/collect via multiple channels has also become critical – and technology is key to helping your staff juggle all of those streams simultaneously. Finally, tech continues to fine-tune our capability to order and pay at the table. (So despite the pushback that QR codes get from some guests, the flexibility and speed they offer operator and guest alike may give them staying power.)
At a time when labor challenges in the restaurant industry persist, could now finally be the moment when robotic servers go mainstream? The idea doesn’t seem so far-fetched now that Chili’s has announced the introduction of robotic waitstaff in 10 of its locations in the U.S. The robot the brand is using, which is a version of the Bear Robotics Servi robot platform, could prove to be an important case study in to what extent automated waitstaff can ease labor woes, how well they manage tasks once handled solely by servers, and how feasible they could be financially for the standard American restaurant.
Amid ongoing labor challenges, automation is something many restaurant operators are willing to try. According to the foodservice technology firm Lightspeed, half of restaurant operators in the U.S. are planning to incorporate automation to fill labor gaps in the next two to three years. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics research from August, the quit rate among hospitality workers is 6.8 percent – more than double the national average – and full-service restaurants are operating with 6.2 percent fewer kitchen employees than they were in 2019. While larger brands are taking on labor challenges by offering enticements ranging from educational benefits to higher pay to even iphones, providing these incentives to potential hires may not be sustainable or even possible for everyone. So how feasible is it for the average restaurant to automate tasks normally delegated to an employee? While the idea of automation may conjure ideas of big-ticket robotic chefs and servers, there are a number of ways to ease labor pressures through automation with far lower barriers to entry. Start there to make sure you are already automating what you can. That could mean automating your bookings, social media posts, online (or even in-person) orders and post-visit marketing so those tasks require less involvement from your staff. Assess your back-of-house procedures as well to weed out any manual processes you use to pay invoices, schedule staff, track inventory, manage food safety and monitor the functioning of equipment.
Many restaurants have added new guest-facing technology in the past 18 months – or at least considered adding it. According to the National Restaurant Association’s State of the Restaurant Industry report for this year, 40 percent of operators said they added tech solutions to their businesses. At the same time, there have been a dizzying number of options coming to market and operators have had more-limited resources to devote to additions. To ensure any new tech resource passes the litmus test for practicality, aim for it to simplify and smooth out the key pain points of the guest experience, yet fade into the background. How easy is it for a guest to use tech to view your menu? Can a guest quickly alert someone on your staff if they have a question? Can they place their order and pay without any delay? Can they split the tab with a friend who wants to pay another way? Consider any potential snag a guest may experience in the duration of their time with you – and how your tech can minimize it, shorten it or eliminate it.
What’s next in customer-facing tech? Industry analysts say siloed tech solutions are out and all-in-one solutions are in. That means that any new tools and systems you adopt should be, above all, adaptable – to a range of surroundings, to the addition of new employees and sales streams, and to new applications that work alongside them. A new report from Restaurant Business also advises that new tools be payment-enabled and designed for easy transport. Servers should be able to carry them from tables to the drive-thru to curbside easily and without worrying about losing battery charge, and to process payments on the fly without having to return to the POS.
If your restaurant has successfully used QR codes in recent months to enable guests to review your menu or place an order, consider doubling down on them – they provide not only a fast, contact-free ordering and payment option but also a digital window onto your guests and their consumption habits. QR codes connect your POS to your guests. You can use that connection to bring your menu to life on the guest’s phone through videos you share about special menu items. Further, when a guest is already on their phone to order, it’s that much easier to get them to sign up for your loyalty program or agree to answer a few survey questions – further feeding the insights you can use to make improvements to your menu and overall business.
Could today’s labor challenges turn the tide for robots in the kitchen? That’s what Gary Stibel, founder and CEO of New England Consulting Group, predicts in the recent “Restaurant of the (Near) Future” report in Nation’s Restaurant News. He said while robots will be more common in kitchens in the near future for labor and novelty reasons, they will also offer substantial value when it comes to micro-personalization. He says: “You’ll be able to more easily select exactly what you want and instead of a bunch of people running around the kitchen, a robot will do precisely what the customer asks.” If you look a few years into the future, how might your ability to offer micro-personalization to guests elevate your business? Could automation help take you there?
If you’re unable to fill staff openings – and unwilling to raise prices to make it possible to raise your hourly wage – technology is quickly becoming the alternative restaurant operators choose to manage business. In a recent article in the New York Times, Shana Gonzales, a Checkers franchisee, said she could fully staff her restaurants if she offered $14-$15 an hour, but that would mean increasing prices so much that her customers would be driven away. So instead, she has introduced voice-recognition technology in her drive-thrus that can take orders, accommodate special requests and modifications, and send that information directly to the kitchen and cashier. At the moment, this technology isn’t replacing staff – at least not on a one-to-one basis – but is serving as a support, allowing employees more time for face-to-face customer service. But it’s safe to say that operators who find ways to incorporate automation can operate more smoothly with a slimmed-down number of total staff. What repetitive tasks in your restaurant could be ones to automate?