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Are robots the answer to restaurant labor shortages?

In the near future, restaurant guests could see a robot take their order, make the meal and charge them for it, too.

As Chipotle implements a robot to assemble customers’ burrito bowls, it has both restaurants and customers alike asking how the industry will navigate the rise of automation technology.

For many restaurants that experienced the strife of labor shortages during the coronavirus pandemic, robots could be the answer to labor concerns down the line.

Customers should expect increased restaurant robots in the future, Sherri Kimes, a professor of service operations management at Cornell University, told Newsweek. This is because, in theory, and most of the time in practice, it can speed up customer orders while adding extra convenience and accuracy.

Dining customers are already seeing it firsthand. Both Chipotle and Sweetgreen are experimenting with a robotic production line to craft customers’ orders while Grubhub is using robots to deliver food on college campuses.

“We believe that automation will enable us to elevate the quality and integrity of our food, while also providing a faster and more convenient experience for our customers, and a better, more dynamic job for our team members,” Jonathan Neman, Sweetgreen’s CEO and co-founder, said in a statement when the chain first went live with its robot-infused Infinite Kitchen restaurant in Naperville, Illinois, earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Chipotle partnered with tech company Hyphen to debut a robotics-enabled digital order makeline.

“Chipotle’s new digital makeline built by Hyphen embodies our commitment to leveraging robotics to unlock the human potential of our workforce, ensuring an elevated dining experience for our guests,” Curt Garner, chief customer and technology officer, said in a statement. “Our goal is to have the automated digital makeline be the centerpiece of all our restaurants’ digital kitchens.”

Chipotle and Sweetgreen are just two restaurants embracing the technology, but it indicates there’s more to come for the industry, experts say.

“Restaurants are more frequently adopting robot technology in non-customer facing functions and then redeploying their staff to focus more on customer service,” Kimes told Newsweek. “This is good for the customer, good for employees and good for the restaurant chains.”

Still, some have doubts about how willing customers are to accept robots in restaurants as a common occurrence.

According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2023 State of the Industry Report, 46 percent of American consumers would order food prepared by automated systems or robots and 37 percent would be fine with delivery from these types of technology.

A study by PYMTS indicated that 83 percent of consumers worry about food quality.

Consumer Views on Robots

According to Jeffrey Lolli, a professor in the field of tourism and business management at Widener University, many customers might have the wrong idea about what a robot in restaurants really entails.

“Many individuals have a perception of robots taking over in industry from what they see in movies such as The Terminator or the beloved Rosey the Robot in the futuristic cartoon, The Jetsons,” Lolli told Newsweek.

But in reality, restaurants have been incorporating automation and robotic tools in the kitchen for many years.

“While not fully automated, these machines enhance operations by adding speed and accuracy to traditional manual or repetitive and timely processes allowing employees to do more in less time thus allowing restaurants to be more efficient in running their business,” Lolli said.

Instead of cutting hundreds of potatoes by hand, cutting machines can do that far faster and with greater accuracy than one human alone. The same can be said for the robots coming into the fold of the restaurant industry today.

Already, automation is changing the front of the house, as well. Instead of relying on just cashiers to take all orders, many fast food chains have implemented kiosks that allow for greater efficiency.

This can prove beneficial in several ways—customers do not necessarily have to feel the frustration of waiting in line, and they also bypass the possibility of being misunderstood by an employee on what they ordered.

Accuracy and efficiency are two commonly cited reasons for restaurants to implement robots, but so far it has mainly been confined to quick-service restaurants. Fine dining has typically stayed away from the practice, and this is likely because customers at those establishments are seeking something beyond quick and convenient food service, according to Lolli.

“Restaurants have been reluctant to use robotics or automation in high-touch guest contact areas,” Lolli said. “In restaurants, part of the experience is the ambiance and the service interaction with the server which all contribute to an outstanding meal. People go out to eat not to just fulfill a biological need but also to fulfill an emotional and psychological need by connecting with others.”

How Robots Could Solve the Labor Shortage

Beyond just greater efficiency and accuracy for customers, robots are cited by restaurants to bring a high return on investment because they solve many of the labor challenges the industry has faced while ultimately being cheaper than employing another worker in many cases.

“Being able to use robots to perform repetitive tasks can be helpful and can be used to reduce labor costs,” Alex Susskind, the director of the Food and Beverage Institute at Cornell University, told Newsweek. “We have seen this with call centers, drive-thrus, and through the use of pre-prepared products and ingredients. Robots are machines, and they have been successfully used in manufacturing for a very long time.”

While the industry is closing the gap on pre-pandemic staffing levels, there is still much progress to be made, Lolli said.

In January, there were still approximately 1.5 million job openings in the combined restaurants and accommodations sector, according to the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Downside of Robots in Restaurants

That’s not to say robots are without fallbacks, experts say.

For one, automation can be costly and requires a significant upfront investment that not all restaurants are able to afford. Small businesses increasingly will be cut out of this technology while the large chains have more buying power to invest in robotics to serve their bottom line.

There’s also the issue of robot management. Just like humans working in restaurants, robots need to be managed, and they are prone to breakdowns and maintenance, meaning they aren’t exactly perfect substitutes for human labor in a restaurant setting.

“While a robot won’t call in sick, it may break down in the middle of a shift with little or no notice,” Susskind said.

And even beyond that, some restaurants are hesitant to implement the tools because of fears of customer reactions.

“Even these types of restaurants have been reluctant to use this type of technology in guest-facing areas because it makes the service element impersonal,” Lolli said. “Having a person serve you in a restaurant has always been important and I would argue, even more important post-pandemic where we were isolated for over a year.”

Essentially: even if the food is amazing, the server can make or break the dining experience.

“In the end, restaurants, yes, provide food, but they equally provide a service,” Lolli said. “Many elements go into this and the ‘secret sauce’ has always been and will always be people.”

Susskind also shares his reservations that robotics could ever fully replace humans in the service-oriented restaurant industry.

“I firmly believe that removing the human touch from restaurants is a slippery slope,” Susskind told Newsweek. “One element of a restaurant experience is having the restaurant make you feel special. I have yet to see a robot that can replace that human element of the service experience.”

While robotic technology is rapidly improving, Lolli believes it will never fully replace the strong people skills that are needed to create powerful guest experiences in the restaurant industry.

“When you leave a restaurant, what do you have to take with you? Yes, you had a wonderful meal but that has already been consumed,” Lolli said. “What you leave with is a memorable experience that was created by people, not robots.”

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