Rising costs, along with the struggle to attract and retain labor, are hastening the automation of a wide range of restaurant tasks. While up to now, most kitchen automation has been supported by human intervention, newcomers to the market are blurring the lines between quick-service/fast-casual restaurants and sophisticated vending machines that can serve warm food and drink. In the process, they are gaining the ability to keep costs low for customers. Newly launched Mezli, for one, has been called the world’s first fully autonomous robotic restaurant. It serves up a full hot menu of healthy grain bowls, sides and drinks without any human intervention — and their bowls start at $6.99.
If there was one predominant theme to emerge from this year’s National Restaurant Association show, it might be that robots’ time has finally arrived. The labor crunch has made the need for new solutions all the more pressing and the recent show presented solutions including robots that can complete such tasks as bartending, cleaning and even climbing stairs to deliver orders. In the months leading up to the show, robots have taken on more of the monotonous, repetitive or dangerous tasks in restaurants, such as serving as fry cooks, with increasing frequency. Servi, a server robot that is being leased by a growing number of independent and national brands in recent months, costs approximately $1,000 per month. For many operators struggling to find staff, being able to count on an extra set of hands to complete tasks has been worth the cost.
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.
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.