The restaurant industry is one of extreme ups and downs – in labor expenditure and availability, sales and costs. But what if automation could bring predictability to your operation by supporting staff in certain areas or ensuring safety during the pandemic? Expect to see more of it in both the back and front of the house as operators manage changes in service right now. While automation may still seem futuristic in restaurants, it had been on the rise even well before the pandemic: Oxford University research predicted that 90 percent of quick-service restaurants would become fully automated within the next decade or two. There are ample applications beyond quick service too: Restaurants are now using it to reinvent the traditional buffet for the current environment. Of course, the costs of conversion aren’t insignificant but should factor into your longterm recovery strategy as you also consider the costs required to recruit, pay, insure and train employees on an ongoing basis. Once the technology and insurability of self-driving cars and delivery drones solidifies, automated delivery is likely to become more commonplace for restaurants too. How can tech automation – whether through emerging robotic innovation or even automated tools currently available to you on your POS or mobile app – improve your balance sheet?
Just a few months ago, the use of robots and other technology to automate food preparation and service tasks may have seemed more quirky than practical for much of the restaurant industry. Fast forward to now, and the ability to automate various foodservice tasks looks like a clear advantage: It could help operators preserve social distancing requirements in the kitchen, better protect employee and customer health, and manage labor challenges at a time when infections could strain business. While the cost of such tech has been a barrier to entry in the past, look for that to change as restaurant tech companies take steps to kick-start their own businesses. A report from the San Francisco Chronicle details how the preparation of products ranging from smoothies to salads could change as automation is adopted more widely.
A robot that can flip burgers behind the scenes is one thing. But somehow, a robot that can take on a wide range of front-of-house roles normally held by humans still feels a little space-age. However, a voice-activated, cloud-enabled service robot called the Sanbot Elf Robot seems to be making that possible. Canada-based Autonetics Universe recently acquired the rights to distribute the robot, which Nation’s Restaurant News reports can be programmed to take on such roles as greeting guests, taking orders, and sharing promotions, as well as serving as food runner, cashier and even security guard. The service robot is already used widely in Canada and Japan — the company says there are currently 100,000 in use — and it’s not difficult to see how such technology may appeal to U.S. operators struggling to manage labor costs. (Well, aside from the $13,000 price tag.) McDonald’s is currently testing robotic technology used for frying, taking drive-thru orders and cooking chicken and fish, so front-of-house applications may not be far behind for major brands.
If you’re currently adjusting your approach to managing labor challenges, repetitive kitchen tasks or the overall experience you provide guests, a number of tech companies are working on solutions to help. At the recent food robotics summit ArticulATE, leaders of these companies sounded off on what’s in the pipeline, and as SmartBrief reports, a key theme of discussion was finding ways for technology to blend seamlessly with human employees and guests, while freeing up employees for more creative tasks. The formula isn’t the same for every restaurant. While there is technology available that can automate burger flipping and fryer operation (Miso Robotics), baking bread (Wilkinson Baking Company, among others), serving guests (Bear Robotics) and delivering food, finding the right kind of automation for your business is about understanding what is best for developing your employees and serving guests. As the CEO of Creator, the restaurant in San Francisco that uses robots to make the perfect burger but has not automated the taking of orders, said: “Our goal is not to be the world’s most automated restaurant, our goal is not to have as few people as possible -- the goal is to have the best experience possible.”