Maybe it was a slow news week. Perhaps it was the sight of pancakes hitching a ride on a robot at America’s late-night diner. Whatever the reason, it seemed like every news organization wrote the same story about a TikTok video of server-robot showing up to dish out breakfast at a Denny’s.
They all had a variant of the same headline: “Viral Video of Robot at Denny’s Sparks Debate.” From there, the authors sifted through comments made by TikTok viewers, some cheering the idea of faster service and lower tips, others angry about a robot stealing a job.
While the sudden interest in a social media post about a server robot may say as much about the modern media landscape as it does about the use of robotics at restaurants, the reality is Denny’s deploying robots is kind of a big deal. After all, as America’s most famous 24-hour diner, Denny’s holds a special place in our collective consciousness, a place where almost anyone can get a cheap meal as well as apply for – and often get – a job.
And it’s these two things that Denny’s represents – a place with affordable food and an employer of everyday Americans – that seemed to be in tension with one another when looking at both the comments on the video on TikTok as well as the framing by the media.
Media coverage of robotics in food service has been evolving over the past year, with news organizations going from gee-whiz articles about a cool new novelty to increasingly viewing the use of robotics as a direct result of hiring difficulties due to the pandemic. Of course, this new framing isn’t altogether wrong, as hiring has been difficult. Still, the reality is a bit more nuanced and has as much to do with fast-changing restaurant industry business models and changing consumer eating patterns as it does with hiring difficulties.
No matter the reason, the wider arrival of robotics at Denny’s and restaurant chains is raising the profile of these solutions and looks to be sparking a broader conversation about the impact of automation on the experience and the livelihoods of those in the service industry. This increased spotlight will also likely mean a more jaded framing of food robotics by the media, much like we’ve seen when it comes to their coverage of social media and privacy. While this isn’t necessarily a wrong reaction – it’s the media’s job to be skeptical – a pendulum swing is something the industry should be prepared for.
For the average consumer, the use of robots remains a curiosity. There hasn’t been – at least not yet – a rise of an organized Luddite anti-automation reaction to food robotics. However, the passion in some of the comments on TikTok could be the canary in the coalmine signaling one may be on the way.
As for companies like Bear Robotics – the provider of Denny’s server robot – business just continues to grow. I checked in with Bear Robotics COO Juan Higueros on how the Denny’s rollout is going.
“They have moved fairly quickly,” he said.
According to Higueros, it’s the operators on the front lines who are looking for answers. “What’s interesting is that this is a bottom-up movement by franchise owners that are really pulling for our solution.”
You can watch the TikTok video that sparked the conversation last week below.
Early morning breakfast at Denny’s I did give the server hot apple pie mini melt sample..♬ original sound – Bob