Will Robots Flip Fast Food On Its Head?

American restaurants are integrating robots into their production processes for the exact same reason factories did it before them. This has become possible thanks to the dropping cost of machines. It has dropped 40% on average since 2005, reports Boston Consulting Group. Labor, meanwhile, is becoming a larger cost, especially with some cities setting mandatory minimum wages for workers.

The chief operations officer of Wendy’s, Bob Wright, was reported telling investors in a conference call a year automation makes “a lot more sense,” given rising minimum wages, reported The Atlantic. Major restaurant chains such as Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Panera are in the midsts of deploying self-service kiosks at locations across the country designed to let customers order food without ever engaging an employee. Starbucks pushes ordering on its mobile app heavily, and those orders make up 10 percent of its sales.

Business owners maintain that robots will simply work the dirty, dangerous or just plain boring jobs letting human beings focus on other tasks. For example, CaliBurger, an international chain, will soon install Flippy, a robot that can flip 150 burgers an hour. John Miller, CEO of the chain’s owner, Cali Group, was reported saying employees hate working the greasy, hot grill. Robots will take over the sweaty kitchen work while humans interact with customers by bringing them refills, napkins, and making sure they are comfortable.

Blaine Hurst, CEO and president of Panera, explained that the no-longer-necessary cashiers now bring food from the kitchen to the tables, and are tasked with human interaction and assuring quality of customer experience. However, it is unclear how many customer interaction jobs will truly be necessary.

Some restaurants have seen teams that began as robots and people phase out the humans. For example, the San Francisco company Eatsa let customers use their smartphones to order quinoa bowls and salads, then pick up their food from white cubbies reminiscent of the Automat. At first the system had two greeters stationed alongside the cubbies to welcome and direct customers, but eventually customers stopped relying on these greeters, and the company reduced their staff to a single greeter per location. Eatsa announced it was closing locations in NYC, DC and Berkely. CEO of Eatsa Tim Young said the problem was the food, not the technology, and other restaurants were interested in deploying the model.

Automation is helping companies manage their labor budgets. Take Zume pizza, for example, where robots spread sauce on dough, and feed pies into ovens. Due to an investment in automation early on, Zume spends 10% of its budget on labor, which is under the typical 25% for restaurants. It gives its human employees above-average wages and perks, meaning $15 dollars an hour and full benefits. Zume also provides reimbursement for tuition and tutoring in coding and data science. As with technological upheavals of the past, old jobs do disappear, but new ones emerge. The job description radiology technician has only been in census data since 1990.

A final consideration may be the time of day and the purpose of the meal. While high tech services for grabbing coffee and breakfast on the go such as Uber Eats and the Starbucks app abound in popularity, it may well be that the experience of going out to eat at a restaurant will still require an in person wait staff.