Many predicted the automation of the restaurant industry: A world where robots take your order, make your food and deliver it to your doorstep. According to these predictions, there would be no “Help Wanted” signs on storefronts — instead, restaurants would be staffed by metal creatures who never call out sick and have batteries for organs.
An executive from Yum brands, which owns several fast-food chains including Pizza Hut, KFC and Taco Bell, predicted in 2017 that AI, robots and automation could replace human workers “by the mid (2020s).”
The pandemic accelerated this transition — the recipe for success in fast food depends on a robust supply of low-cost labor, and with mass staffing shortages, companies were forced to make technologically geared investments.
What are the benefits of automation for fast-food chains?
Software for self-serve options, inventory, scheduling and marketing already exist, according to Synergy Consultants.
McDonald's has giant iPad-like screens with artificial intelligence systems at each location, allowing customers to order on their own, in addition to being able to order from the living person standing at the cash register.
Sam Zietz, chief executive of Grubbrr, a self-ordering software company, told MarketWatch that there are bigger profits to be made with the help of robots.
“On average, a cashier at a quick-service restaurant open 15 hours per day will cost more than $6,000 per month (with all associated carrying costs),” he told MarketWatch. “In contrast, automation technology can perform all of the functions of the cashier at a fraction of the price. In addition, technology always show up, don’t call in sick, and are ready to work 24/7.”
The challenges of automation
Are fast-food restaurants ready to fully automate their operations? The answer isn’t simple.
McDonald’s president and CEO Chris Kempczinski was asked during the Q2 earnings this year whether staffing problems are hampering the burger chain's potential, and whether technological solutions could help.
“Thinking about longer term, there’s a lot of interest around what can you do from an automation standpoint,” Kempczinski said, per Mashed. “We’ve spent a lot of time, money, effort, looking at this, and there is not going to be a silver bullet that goes and addresses this for the industry.”
He explained that, though great for headlines, the economics of it doesn’t add up: “You don’t necessarily have the footprint, and there’s a lot of infrastructure investments that you need to do around your utility, around your HVAC systems. You’re not going to see that as a broad-based solution anytime soon.”
Instead, the double arches chain is sticking to creating a good customer experience the old-fashioned way for now — with a human crew.
It’s learned this through trial and error. Last year, McDonald’s began testing a voice recognition system that garnered only 85% order accuracy, forcing the company to take its time with rolling out the feature universally.
Which chains are testing automation?
Even though McDonald's is hesitant, others are moving ahead into a future dominated by robots and AI. For example, Chipotle Mexican Grill has invested in Hyphen, a California-based robotics company that offers systems that can organize digital orders efficiently.
“Their use of robotics to enhance the employee and guest experience to find efficiencies in the restaurant industry aligns with our mission of leveraging emerging technology to increase access to real food,” said Curt Garner, chief technology officer at Chipotle.
The Mexican chain also bought Chippy, created by Miso Robotics, to check how well it can make tortilla chips. Meanwhile, Jack in the Box has been experimenting with Miso’s Flippy 2 to work a fryer for french fries or chicken wings at the cost of $3 per month, as well as the fully automatic robot Sippy to fulfill the drink orders.
White Castle, Panera Bread and Buffalo Wild Wings are also testing out the Miso products. Moreover, the technology within the food industry is predicted to reach $342 billion by 2027, according to Emergen Research’s modeled estimates.
Many jobs in the restaurant business are monotonous, becoming easy prey to automation. But for now, it seems as though McDonald’s and other restaurants aren’t planning to fire the country’s nearly 5 million fast-food employees anytime soon.
Will robots and humans work together?
Research from Harvard Business Review, involving 1,500 companies that use AI, found that “firms achieve the most significant performance improvements when humans and machines work together.” Operating a business requires creativity and social skills, possessed by humans, in addition to the speed and scalability that robots can offer.
Plus, an employee will still have to train the technology, explain what outcomes are expected and sustain the day-to-day routine. In short, robots need us.
For example, a human employee has to program the chatbots that fast-food restaurants use. This may include adding a sympathetic response like “I’m sorry to hear that” in the event of a customer complaint, in order to make the conversation smoother. The chatbot gathers various types of private information and it's up to human employees to ensure this information is managed responsibly.
Some companies may try to introduce a robot super-employee in hopes of cutting costs but, as the Harvard Business Review study concluded, those “organizations that use machines merely to displace workers through automation will miss the full potential of AI.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean that fast-food restaurant workers will be able to retain their jobs in their present forms — they may need to acquire additional skills to provide value to the company.
This transition may require sacrifice, wrote Kai-Fu Lee, CEO of Sinovation Ventures and author of the 2018 book “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order.”
“But despairing rather than preparing for what’s to come is unproductive and, perhaps, even reckless,” he said. “We must remember that our human knack for compassion and empathy is going to be a valuable asset in the future workforce, and that jobs hinged on care, creativity and education will remain vital to our society.”