Automation Scrambles Fast-Food Restaurant Staffing

As kiosks and robots move into the industry, human workers must change roles

By Steve Bates August 2, 2018
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​"Do you want fries with that?"

You might have been asked that before. Increasingly, however, the question is being posed by a machine, such as a kiosk or a cellphone app.

There's no doubt that the fast-food business is being transformed by technology. Some workers are shifting to or are being hired for different roles. A store that prompts customers to use kiosks needs fewer people taking orders, but it can deploy more people to greet customers at the door, bring meals to their tables and clean the restaurant.

With automation, "there is a potential labor savings," said Patrick Sugrue, president and CEO of Saladworks, a salad restaurant chain based in West Conshohocken, Pa. "In our world, where attracting and retaining a workforce is increasingly difficult and increasingly expensive, [automation] helps take some of the pressure off of your staffing problems."

He added, "We've not seen a reduction in the number of employees per store. Anything we've saved in labor through automation and technology we've redeployed to enhance the experience."

Convenience, speed and a reduction in order errors are the main menu of automation benefits. "Consumers are willing to give up certain expectations of a humanity-endowed dining experience as long as their core demands are met," said Logan Flatt, senior vice president of strategy at Ansira, a Dallas-based data-driven marketing firm.

"We're just seeing an explosion of automation," added Steve Latham, CEO and founder of Banyan Hills Technologies, a high-tech firm near Atlanta.

At Saladworks, which has more than 100 locations, store automation is moving at a steady pace.

"Our customers are tech-savvy," said Sugrue, who estimated that there are kiosks in 10 percent of his stores. "Increasingly, their idea of customer engagement is defined by, 'Get me what I want, when I want it, the way I want it.' And it doesn't necessarily require human involvement."

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The Impact on Staffing

Labor market experts disagree about how many U.S. jobs will be lost to automation. A 2013 report by Oxford University researchers found that about 47 percent of U.S. employment was at risk. However, Forrester Research has concluded that because automation will create jobs as well as kill some, the net loss of employment will be only 7 percent by 2025.

"Everyone assumes that the machines will take over and steal all of our jobs. This, however, could not be further from the truth," said Daniel Houseman, a content specialist for Comm-Works, a technology deployment and managed service company in Minneapolis. "New, automated systems may be performing the traditional task of a fast-food worker. However, this is allowing workers to focus on better, higher-valued jobs."

Flatt agreed. "The number of employees per store unit is going up," he said, though he added that the number may start to decrease over time as greater efficiencies are revealed.

Latham says those efficiencies are already apparent. "Automation will continue to displace human labor―it's inevitable." He noted that "encouraging people entering the workforce to have a base level of technical expertise is essential."

In addition to changing employee roles, hiring practices at fast-food outlets are shifting as well. Since many candidates for hourly positions in the industry don't own computers, most employers now offer the ability to apply for jobs using their phones, said Ankit Somani, co-founder of AllyO, an AI-based recruiting technology firm based in Sunnyvale, Calif. "They can be scheduled for an interview within three minutes," he said. "In many cases, the time-to-hire has been reduced by 60 to 70 percent."

Invasion of the Robot Chefs

The changes in fast food entail more than just customers using kiosks and ordering by phone. "Flippy," a device with a robotic arm, can cook hamburgers and clean the grill at CaliBurger in Pasadena, Calif. Creator, an eatery in San Francisco, has a robot that it claims can produce an entire hamburger made-to-order. In China, an entrepreneur has built a robot that reportedly can cook any of 40 recipes from Hunan province.

"In some situations, restaurants could become like large vending machines," said Flatt. Sugrue added that automation has allowed his stores to increase their volume of business. He explained that the technology guides company decisions on products and collects data on customer preferences, such as which soups sell best each season.

"A computer that can flip a hamburger is pretty impressive," said Charleston, S.C.-based Justin M. Reese IV, vice president and senior risk consultant for HUB International, a global insurance brokerage. However, it might cost more than $30,000. "That's a lot of money."

Reese does not believe that totally automated restaurants will become the norm. "I don't foresee it in our lifetime," he said.

There are limitations to what robots can do in a restaurant, he noted. "You've still got to have that human touch."

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.

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