Automation in the Food Service Industry: Where Are We Now and What Does It Mean

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Moley Robotics

Like just about every other industry, the food service industry is becoming increasingly automated. Considering humankind’s straightforward quest to never have to interact with one another, this makes sense. Why talk to a restaurant employee, tip them, and then complain about the service when you can order from a robot and skip right to the complaining?

In all seriousness, we are currently seeing automation in food service really take off. From fast food to middle-end restaurants, many establishments are gradually adding various forms of automation both in and out of the kitchen.

Despite recent breakthroughs in automation and robotics, we’ve actually been trying to take waiters and waitresses out of the picture for quite some time. Vending machines began dispensing food in the late 1800s. In 1897, the first Automat opened, a restaurant where you put a nickel in a shiny futuristic-machine, a cook behind the scenes prepares it, and a meal gets dispensed from the mysterious sci-fi like contraption. Over just the last few decades, soda service grew from an employee pouring it to self-serve fountains to touch-screen Coca-Cola 360 machines.

The first Automat opened in Berlin in 1897

Today, however, food service automation is reaching new heights. If you’ve been to a McDonald's in Europe, Canada, or an airport recently, you’ve probably noticed the kiosks that allow you to order your food using a touch screen display and pick it up when it’s ready. Even further, McDonald's opened a beta version of a fully automated McDonald's in 2015 involving robots that work 50 times faster than the average human. There is only a small team of humans there to keep the robots in check.

The manager of the store had this to say of his robot co-workers:

“These things are great! They get their work done in a fast and orderly manner, plus they don’t ask for cigarette breaks.”

A spokesman for McDonald's cited “a high demand for a minimum wage of 15$/hr”, “protests [against McDonald's] getting worse every day”, “the tremendous margin of human error, poor hygiene, lack of education,” and “laziness” as reasons for the move towards automation.

Many local fast food workers expressed concerns about the new automated restaurant, some of them were people who lost their job during the transition to automation.

Shares of McDonald's have steadily increased since 2015, reaching all-time highs. Wendy’s is now following suite.

Increases in automation are also present in a variety of ways among many other restaurant chains. Chipotle, Panera and Starbucks have implemented touch screen ordering, and Chili’s, Red Robin and Olive Garden have implemented at-the-table touch-screen payment processing.

Moving over to the hipper side of the restaurant industry, a variety of new emerging food service businesses and restaurants are using automation as their business model. Eatsa, for example, is an expanding restaurant chain where customers order on their phone or an iPad and quickly receive a meal in a cubby with their name on it, all without having to interact with anyone. It seems the era of the automat is returning.

Eatsa

Robots are likewise beginning to have larger roles in the kitchen. A large portion of modern kitchen equipment has programmable settings for specific food items, making it as simple as a press of a button to cook something to perfection. With this technology, humans do significantly less, and it’s not unreasonable to expect them to be gradually phased out of the kitchen.

Some new businesses and restaurants are doing just that. Momentum Machines released a device in 2014 that makes hamburgers completely on its own. It presses patties, chops toppings, and assembles it all into a perfect hamburger at a rate of 360 burgers per hour. This burger robot is said to be more consistent, sanitary and fast than any human burger chef. Better yet, the next generation of the machine will have the capability to serve “custom meat grinds for every single customer” allowing people to choose exact proportions of meats like beef, pork, and bison to be in their burger. Last year the first automated burger restaurant opened in San Francisco using this device.

Beyond burgers, 2016’s National Restaurant Association Show featured three robot chefs that are capable and ready to go. One of them is a sushi chef that makes maki, hand rolls and nigiri at a rate of 3,600 pieces of nigiri an hour, another is a robot “employee” that can work a fryer and cook a batch of french fries as quickly as a human employee, and the last was a salad vending machine that allows customers to select custom salads from a large variety of ingredients and receive them almost instantly.

What does all this mean for the food service industry

Any discussion on automation is destined to become a discussion about the loss of jobs. But will automation in the food service industry really mean less jobs for humans? It’s pretty hard to say at this point, but I’d say it’s well within the realm of possibility.

There are three main reasons food service operations are looking to automate. One is to cut labor costs by not having to pay human employees. Another is to increase efficiency, quality, sanitation, uniformity, etc. Last, some companies will use automation and robotics for branding and publicity purposes, drawing attention regardless of the practicality of its use.

In the case of the second two, humans shouldn’t have to worry about being replaced. Kiosks at McDonalds and touch screen ordering at Chipotle probably won’t put too many people out of a job. Instead, they’re meant to enhance the experience of the customer by speeding up the ordering process and making them feel like they’re in the future. These places still have people making food and watching over the kiosks.

When considering the incentive to cut labor costs, however, it’s hard not imagine a loss of jobs. If automated technology gets cheap and reliable enough, there will be no reason to pay multiple employees a living wage. If restaurants continue to follow the model of the fully automated McDonalds in Phoenix, or worse yet, the automated burger restaurant in San Francisco using Momentum Machine’s burger maker, then we can certainly expect less jobs in the fast food industry. But will there be new jobs elsewhere?

When asked about the potential economic effects of their device, Momentum Machines had this to say:

“The issue of machines and job displacement has been around for centuries and economists generally accept that technology like ours actually causes an increase in employment. The three factors that contribute to this are 1. the company that makes the robots must hire new employees, 2. the restaurant that uses our robots can expand their frontiers of production which requires hiring more people, and 3. the general public saves money on the reduced cost of our burgers. This saved money can then be spent on the rest of the economy.”

While these points are true in certain respects, and I don’t necessarily believe we need to stop automating, I can’t help seeing negative consequences in spite of them. Fast Food Jobs are unskilled and don’t require an education or many resources, whereas skills required for robot-making jobs would presumably range from some technical knowledge of machinery to a full-on computer science degree. If jobs move from the fast food industry to the automation industry, couldn’t that take jobs away from the lower class and just place them in in the middle and upper classes?

On the second point about how using their robot would allow a company to “expand their frontiers of production” causing them to hire more people, I’m still not convinced. This presumably means opening new stores and providing more services, yet who’s to say their expansion won’t also be based on automation? New stores just mean more robots, and they have an incentive to use automation to provide new services.

Finally, if a large portion of jobs are taken by automation, then there will be less money in the economy, canceling out the fact that the reduced cost of burgers will allow more money to be spent elsewhere in the economy.

Nonetheless, automation in inevitable both in and out of the food service industry. No one knows for sure what effects it will have on our lives, but one thing seems clear: we need to learn to work with it instead of against it.

For now, at least, restaurant workers can take comfort in the fact that that robots can’t taste food. The practice of eating is just about as human as it gets, and will for a long time require at least some humans to facilitate. Until burger making machines become our robot overlords (and that will happen), we’re still ultimately in control.

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