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As restaurants adjust to changing business conditions some operators are using robots and other automation technologies to reallocate some tasks and maximize efficiency.
Many restaurants are still operating with fewer staff members than they had before the pandemic, but rising costs have forced some operators to put hiring on the backburner, according to the Restaurant Business Conditions Survey released in August by The National Restaurant Association. Sixty-five percent of the 4,200 restaurant operators surveyed said their restaurant does not have enough employees to support its existing customer demand, and yet 40% of restaurants have had to cut staffing levels in recent months due to higher costs, while 29% have postponed recruiting and hiring plans.
To help fill in some of the gaps created by understaffing and respond to rising costs, nearly 1 in 4 operators (25%) said they have incorporated more technology into their restaurants.
Assigning the right tasks to tech
Automation technology has been steadily growing in the restaurant industry for several years, and many restaurants already employ it in some form. More than 3 in 4 restaurants (76%) currently use three or more automated tools, according to a recent Capterra survey of 174 restaurant business leaders. When asked which roles are most difficult to replace with automation, respondents’ top choices were chef, manager and server – all jobs that require a human touch that is indispensable in the restaurant industry.
Keeping the strengths and weaknesses of automation technology in mind is essential when choosing tech tools to incorporate into a restaurant. A robot can’t replicate the creativity of a chef, the people skills of a manager or the warm hospitality of a server, but there are plenty of other roles to which automation technology is well suited.
“Some of the most important technologies and productivity enhancers are invisible physically to the consumer,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association’s Research and Knowledge Group.
Digital ordering is a prime example of how diners have embraced restaurant technology. “If the pandemic did one thing in terms of how consumers engaged with restaurants, when they’re not on site, it has made them much more comfortable and familiar with digital ordering,” Riehle said, noting that digital orders accounted for about 5% of total restaurant orders before the pandemic, and now that figure is closer to 20% of total orders.
When dining inside the restaurant, consumers are more likely to accept automation that occurs behind the scenes or serves to aid – rather than replace – human staffers.
“If you survey consumers and ask them do they want to be served by a robot in a restaurant…in most cases, they will say no. But if you ask them… [about] a robot taking dishes from the dining room back to the kitchen, you know, that’s an entirely different situation in terms of how they perceive technology,” Riehle said.
Robots graduate from lab to restaurant kitchen
A growing number of restaurants are turning to robotics in the kitchen to take some repetitive tasks off staffers’ plates. The appeal of this type of automation is twofold: It makes back-of-house jobs more appealing by eliminating less-desirable tasks such as working the fryer, and it frees up more of staffers’ time for customer service.
After initial test runs in laboratory environments, these robots are beginning to roll out in actual restaurant kitchens, where operators can see how they stand up to real world scenarios.
Marco’s Pizza has found that using machines instead of human employees to cut and roll dough has reduced that task to a “couple hours every day compared to 7 or 8 hours previously,” co-CEO Tony Libardi told Reuters.
Buffalo Wings & Rings, which recently completed the first phase of a pilot test of Miso Robotics’ Flippy 2 in a Crestview Hills, Ky., unit, found that the fryer robot can “do the work of one to two full time employees over the course of a day,” Chief Operating Officer Bob Bafundo said.
The chain first began working with Miso Robotics two years ago, with the main goal of reducing back-of-house tasks. The July installation of Flippy 2 in the Kentucky restaurant made it the first wing chain to go live with a Miso product, and Bafundo said the in-store testing is key since lab tests can never “fully anticipate all the things you’re going to run into in a live restaurant situation.”
The Crestview Hills location completed initial testing in August, and is due to start another round of testing this month after implementing some changes, including feedback from store employees.
Staffers had three half-day training sessions before Flippy joined the crew, and the reception has been positive. “We were concerned initially that [employees] would feel like it was doing nothing but taking jobs away from them. But…that team feels like they’re on the cutting edge,” Bafundo said. “They feel like they’re getting a peek under the tent, if you will, of the future of the restaurant industry.”
What’s next for restaurant automation?
Looking into the future of restaurant technology, it is likely we’ll see more solutions aimed at giving employees more time to focus on customer service.
“As operators are quite cognizant, the restaurant industry is still a hospitality industry,” the National Restaurant Association’s Riehle said. “And consequently, the challenge is getting that right balance between maintaining that service and hospitality experience in tandem with a much more technology-integrated system which can really enhance the productivity and efficiency of both the front- and the back-of-the-house.”
One of the fastest-growing categories of automation technology for the hospitality industry is voice artificial intelligence, which a range of tech companies are fine-tuning with the goal of automating order taking at the drive-thru window or over the phone.
Presto, which supplies the AI voice technology used at the drive-thru by sibling chains Checkers and Rally’s, brought in $120 million with its initial public offering last month, and voice technology startup ConverseNow, which works with brands including Domino’s Pizza and Fazoli’s, has raised $60 million this year.
Although the technology does show promise for taking over tasks from human staffers so they can work with customers, it is still in its early days. “[D]rive-thru is complex. Even the best AI platforms may still need human help,” ConverseNow co-founder and CEO Vinay Shukla told TechCrunch.
The continued growth of automation technology in the restaurant industry will come with a learning curve as operators figure out how to strike a balance between technology and the human touch, but, as Riehle said, “The fact is, overall, for the restaurant industry, technology is definitely much more embedded in the typical operation and will continue to become more so in the years ahead.”
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