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.
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?
Robotic chefs may still sound futuristic – but they already have a place in restaurant kitchens. That’s particularly true for restaurants struggling to hire and retain staff, and those eager to get a better handle on food waste (so in other words, everyone). While Spyce claims to be the first restaurant with a kitchen run entirely by robots that can prepare complex recipes, a rapidly increasing number of brands are offloading repetitive kitchen tasks to robotic assistants. And as more venture into this territory, look for prices for this technology to fall. A sign of things to come: This year’s Consumer Electronics Show featured a kitchen robot from Moley Robotics that can prepare thousands of dishes, avoid allergens when requested, or simply guide a person through the steps of a recipe as they prepare it. While the price tag is steep at $340,000, it’s likely to challenge other companies in the space to accomplish similar tasks less expensively in the not-so-distant future.
What’s the best way for you to get take-away food to your customers? As operators adjust to new, late-pandemic conditions – including a lack of available labor and an increase in potential vendors and tech-driven solutions to provide support – they are making changes to how they handle delivery. Panera, long held up as an example of how a non-pizza restaurant can accommodate in-house delivery, recently announced it would be switching to third-party delivery – at least for now. In the meantime, the food delivery robot is becoming a far less futuristic concept than it ever was, with companies including Nuro, Kiwibot, Tortoise and Starship Technologies rolling out options for last-mile delivery. Those robots also happen to relieve some of restaurants’ labor, food safety, marketing and profitability pressures, so they could make the delivery landscape look a whole lot different in the coming months and years.
Imagine if your kitchen technology could let you tap into the cooking expertise of chefs from around the world. Artificial intelligence is now powering intelligent restaurants like a new one in Naperville, Ill. by Nala Robotics. The company says its restaurant can make “dishes from any cuisine around the world, using authentic recipes from celebrated chefs,” and easily change menus and adapt dishes to any number of customer modifications. Whether restaurants choose to adopt AI in their kitchens or not, these robotic assistants are likely to change what restaurant competition looks like – and what consumers expect from restaurants.
A whopping 91 percent of restaurants plan to invest in kitchen automation technology this year, according to a new survey data from the payments company Square. To be fair, Square is among the players providing back-of-house tech tools in restaurants and retailers, but their research still provides some helpful clues about where back-of-house tech is heading in the near term – and it’s not so much about robotic chefs and servers. The key theme restaurants are focusing on is adopting an efficient hub-and-spoke model where the kitchen is at the center and can seamlessly manage customer orders coming from a growing list of sources, including the curb, the drive-through, the dining room and beyond. This tech can also enhance flexibility by enabling a restaurant to integrate a new channel where needed – or scale back on another.
What kitchen tasks do you wish you could automate? Even if you haven’t contemplated bringing in a robot – or some kind of technology to help with repetitive tasks – a growing number of brands are doing so as a result of the pandemic. As a result, they are creating efficiencies that are likely going to give them a competitive advantage down the line. New research from Research Nester found that the market for cooking robots is likely to grow more than 16 percent between now and 2028 – and have a market valuation (now $86 million) of $322 million by 2028. The good news is that as automation becomes more widespread, it could also become more financially accessible for smaller operators.
Could ghost kitchens become more the rule than the exception in the wake of COVID-19? It’s difficult to argue with the numbers. Automated kitchen technology systems are demonstrating how kitchens can churn out dozens of dishes per hour with minimal assistance from staff. (Kitchen Robotics’ newly released Beastro robotic kitchen, which claims to be the “world’s first robotic dark kitchen,” was designed to handle the planning, preparation and delivery of up to 45 dishes per hour – and only requires assistance in the plating of dishes and the refilling of feeders, the company says.) At a time when it’s difficult to not only find labor but also to quickly shift gears and guarantee safety if and when an employee becomes sick, the automation of kitchen tasks could be worth the investment – or at least some exploration. (In case you missed it, U.S. Foods launched a ghost kitchens program recently to help operators create new revenue streams.)