Automation is on the rise in almost every aspect of the restaurant industry. These innovations, while not designed to eliminate human jobs, will certainly redefine the expected skill set of a restaurant employee in the future.
In 2018, the minimum wage rose in 18 states, and in 2019 it is scheduled to rise again in at least 20, according to Skift Table. This increase, compared with the nation’s lowest unemployment rate in nearly fifty years, has created a climate in which workers are “expensive to retain and in very high demand,” Erika Adams wrote in Skift Table.
Unfortunately, many restaurants are struggling to remain afloat with increased labor cost percentages eating away at their profit margin.
Each step in the food ordering, preparation, and delivery process is experiencing automation experimentation in different restaurants across the globe. Mobile ordering has become increasingly popular, with customers being able to order and pay from their mobile phones, thus reducing wait time significantly and creating fewer lines within the physical restaurant. Many chains, including McDonald’s and Panera, are implementing kiosk stations into their restaurants, further streamlining the ordering process.
Robots are even being integrated into cooking and food preparation. One of the most well-known examples is Flippy, CaliBurger’s burger-flipping robot, which turns burgers with precision timing and even cleans the grill afterward. At Zume Pizza, robots press dough, spread sauce, and place pizzas into the oven, creating consistency of product and eliminating the risk of oven-related injuries to humans.
Robots are being used to mix drinks and make coffee, ensuring that the customer gets precisely what they ordered. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, 73 percent of the activities performed by food service workers “have the potential for automation.”
Does automation then pose a threat to the human food service workforce? Surprisingly, it does not seem to be so.
Many restaurants are using automation to incentivize worker stability in an industry with an exceedingly high turnover rate. Dunkin’ Donuts, looking to recoup the losses from constant re-training of new employees, asked its workers which tasks they disliked the most, and then automated those.
Alex Garden, CEO and co-founder of Zume Pizza, told Upserve Restaurant Insider that implementing automation in their restaurant has allowed them “to offer a $17 minimum wage for all kitchen employees” and well as “full health benefits for all full-time employees.”
The future of the (human) restaurant workforce moving forward will emphasize a different skill set.
With automation taking over much of the “grunt work” and menial tasks, employees in the front of house will be expected to focus solely on hospitality and customer experience. It is also advantageous for restaurant workers to hone multiple skill sets. At Sylvia’s in Harlem, New York, employees are cross trained for use in different areas, which means that staff are expected to not just simply be a dishwasher, or a server, but fill multiple roles.
Another advantage for prospective restaurant employees is technical knowledge. With increased automation, “human employees will need to be on hand for servicing,” which incentivizes employees to learn about robot repair and maintenance, according to Boss Magazine.
Automation may be surging its way into the food service industry, but for the moment it seems confined to performing the tasks many employees found burdensome. This redistribution of energy, not only streamlines and removes risk from routine tasks through automation, but, more importantly, frees the restaurant workforce of the future to focus on hospitality, creativity, and ingenuity.
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