Are you ready for a robot waiter?

While we’ve seen a bunch of news lately about how food robots and automation are gaining momentum in the restaurant world, much of the action has been around ‘back of house’ operations and delivery, where robots and automation can specialize in completing repetitive tasks like making burgers at a lower cost than humans.

But the reality is, front of house is just as susceptible to automation. One of the most obvious places for tech is at the dining table itself, where companies like Ziosk are working to make servers more efficient and, in many cases, help restaurants reduce overall server headcount. Ziosk’s touch screens, which allow consumers to order, ask for refills and pay, are on tables everywhere from Red Robin to Chili’s to Olive Garden. In fact, the company indicated that their kiosks touch 50 million consumers in 3,000 restaurants in the US.

Fast food is even more susceptible to automation. Companies like Panera, Wendy’s and McDonalds are rolling out self-order kiosks nationwide, making fast food one of the fastest growing categories in what some predict will be a $73 billion self-serve kiosk market in 2020.

And then there are those restaurants creating entirely new restaurant concepts which take the front-of-house beyond just the kiosk and make them entirely human-less.

One of these is Eatsa, a San Fransisco based chain that has created a restaurant concept where the entire order and serve flow are done with automation. And if you think Eatsa’s quinoa meals are prepackaged boxes made somewhere off-site, you’re wrong: humans work to fulfill orders, only consumers never get to see them behind the wall of futuristic cubbies where the custom-ordered meals magically appear.

You can see how it all works in the video from Techcrunch below:

But do consumers want humans eliminated entirely in the front of house? Are restaurants going to eventually all become Eatsa-like order and pickup joints with nary a worker in sight?

My guess is human-less front of house operations will eat up a small but growing percentage of the overall restaurant mix, particularly in fast-food and casual dining markets where consumers often want to eat fast and affordably. But the biggest impact will be on specific functions. Much like Amazon has re-thought the grocery store in a modern context to use technology to automate a task (checkout), we’ll see restaurant chains starting to focus on those front of house tasks that can be reduced or eliminated with tech (like ordering).

I expect automation to have a much smaller impact in fine dining’s front of house operations. That’s because consumers are willing – and often times expect – to pay more for the experience, and that experience is usually highly dependent on the service of humans.

The ultimate question is how far will automation go and what does it mean for both restaurants and consumers? On the restaurant side, it’s clear a balance must be struck between increased efficiency and creating a compelling user experience.  If consumers see added benefit through expedited ordering and payment through tech like Ziosk, then why not?

But if going to restaurants becomes the equivalent of going to food ATMs, there’s a chance eating out will lose some of its appeal. Unless of course you frequent one of these many robot-restaurants popping up in China.

Then you may want your meal served by a robot waiter.

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