Robots: The hospitality industry, and restaurants in particular, have adjusted their strategies to incorporate more technology in recent years.
Recently, more AI has been incorporated into restaurants.
For instance, Chipotle Mexican Grill is testing whether robots can make tortilla chips at some of its branches.
Meanwhile, two Sweetgreen locations intend to automate the creation of their salads.
Starbucks wants to upgrade its coffee-brewing equipment to lighten the workload for its baristas.
The progress so far
In 2022, the restaurant industry announced a number of automation initiatives.
Operators scrambled to find solutions for the diminishing staff and growing wages, which led to the decision.
However, efforts have varied during the course of the year.
It will be years before utilizing robots pays off for businesses or replaces employees, according to experts.
David Henkes, the principal of the restaurant industry analysis firm Technomic, said:
“I think there’s a lot of experimentation that is going to lead us somewhere at some point.”
“But we’re still a very labor intensive, labor-driven industry.”
Prior to the pandemic, hiring and retaining workers was a challenge for restaurants.
Those who were laid off looked for other jobs as the pandemic just made the issue more evident.
The National Restaurant Association reports that a shortage of competent workers prevents three-quarters of restaurants from operating at full capacity.
Although restaurant operators increased pay to entice personnel, the rising cost of food also put pressure on profits.
Automation-focused startups presented themselves as the solution, saying that robots are more dependable than burnt-out humans at completing tasks.
They noted that artificial intelligence allows for more precise drive-thru order entry into computers.
Most of the announcements in 2022 came from Miso Robotics, which secured $108 million in November.
They were valued at $523 million, according to Pitchbook.
The company’s most significant invention is a robot named Flippy.
Flippy may be configured to prepare chicken wings and burgers for a monthly rental fee of $3,000.
White Castle promised to install 100 additional Flippy models while renovating four locations.
A new tortilla chip-making robot named Chippy is now being tested by Chipotle Mexican Grill at a site in California.
Miso’s CEO, Mike Bell, stated:
“The highest value benefit that we bring to a restaurant is not to reduce their expenses, but to allow them to sell more and generate a profit.”
Flippy hasn’t been able to go past the testing phase at Buffalo Wild Wings after operating there for more than a year.
One of the privately held startups that Inspire Brands claimed it collaborated with to automate the frying of chicken wings is called Miso.
Startup Picnic Works produces equipment for adding cheese, sauce, and other condiments on top of pizza.
A Domino’s franchise is now testing the technology in Berlin.
As a starting point, Picnic Works charges $3,250 per month to hire out its equipment.
CEO Clayton Wood claims that the subscription makes the technology more affordable for smaller businesses.
According to Pitchbook, Picnic Works raised $13.8 million at a $58.8 million valuation.
Panera Bread has been testing automated ordering using AI technologies.
It also has a temperature and volume tracking Miso system to improve the quality of the coffee.
“Automation is one word, and a lot of people go right to robotics and a robot flipping burgers or making fries,” said Panera Bread chief digital officer George Hanson.
“That is not our focus.”
Even with the advancements, success is not guaranteed.
Beginning in 2020, Zume ceased employing robots to prepare, cook, and deliver food.
Instead, the company focused on food packaging.
Workers and labor advocates frequently criticize employers for eliminating jobs through the use of robots and automation in the workplace.
Meanwhile, restaurant operators have touted their efforts as a way to improve working conditions and eliminate more challenging tasks.
The process of creating salads will be automated at two new Sweetgreen locations that will be built next year using technology created by the startup Spyce.
The new restaurant model, according to Nic Jammet, co-founder and CCO of Sweetgreen, requires fewer workers for shifts.
Jammet noted that lower turnover rates and more employee satisfaction were secondary advantages.
According to Dalhousie University economist Casey Warman, the industry’s penchant for automation will lead to a permanent drop in the number of workers.
“Once the machines are in place, they’re not going to go backwards, especially if there’s large cost savings,” said Warman.
He continued by saying that the pandemic significantly decreased resistance to automation.
In the early stages of the pandemic, customers were accustomed to grocery store self-checkout lanes and relied on mobile apps to make their food orders.
Ball State University assistant professor Dina Zemke studies consumer perceptions of restaurant automation.
Customers were sick of restaurants’ limited hours and slow service, Zemke noted, because of a labor shortage.
In a third-quarter Technomic study, 22% of the owners of more than 500 restaurants said they were investing in equipment that would eliminate the need for kitchen staff.
19% of households also started using labor-saving technologies for ordering.
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Although there are benefits to automation, it is still uncertain whether there will be any cost savings.
McDonald’s tested order-taking technology for drive-thrus years ago after acquiring the AI startup Apprente.
Months after announcing the test, the fast food giant sold the unit to IBM as part of a collaboration to improve the technology.
In over twenty Illinois test branches, the voice-ordering program’s accuracy was only 80%, falling short of the targeted 95% accuracy.
During an earnings call this summer, McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski discussed automation.
“The idea of robots and all of those things, while it maybe is great for garnering headlines, it’s not practical in the vast majority of restaurants,” said Kempczinski.
“The economics don’t pencil out. You’re not going to see that as a broad-based solution anytime soon.”
However, the potential for automation in trivial tasks is higher.
White Castle vice president Jamie Richardson asserted that innovations like Coca-Cola Freestyle machines had a bigger impact on sales.
“Sometimes the bigger automation investments we make aren’t as earth shattering,” said Richardson.