Spyce's human and robot workers

It’s that time again, folks. Each year, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) releases a State of the Restaurant Industry Report that identifies the current state of restaurants as well as what to expect in the coming months. The 2019 edition dropped at the end of last week and, perhaps unsurprisingly, focused heavily on two things: technology and jobs.

Significantly, robots won’t be taking all the jobs, not yet anyway. In fact, according to the report, the restaurant industry currently employs 15.3 million workers and expects to add 1.6 million by 2029. As well, the report notes that these jobs include the chance for “upward mobility and career growth.” In other words, there’s still plenty of opportunity for human beings to build fruitful careers with good incomes over the long haul in the restaurant industry.

That’s an encouraging point, since nowadays there’s also plenty of evidence of robots taking over jobs in the restaurant industry. Just look at a place like Spyce, a fast-casual restaurant in Boston whose food bowls are prepared by robots and who has raised a lot of money to fund that concept. Elsewhere, Chowbotics’ bot Sally can whip together salads and bowls, and Flippy the robot, from Miso Robotics, has successfully gone from flipping burgers to frying chicken to doing a stint at Dodgers Stadium.

Employing robots, or at least robot-like capabilities, on site makes sense for restaurants in many ways. They cost less to keep “on staff,” they can in theory operate 24-7 without a break, and when it comes to things like taking orders and crunching numbers, machines lessen the likelihood of human error and customer dissatisfaction.

But note just what these bots are doing: rote tasks that don’t necessarily require much thought and in many cases aren’t the kinds of jobs that lead to the aforementioned “upward mobility and career growth.” “Our autonomous robotic Kitchen Assistants are focused on helping with the most repetitive, dangerous, and least desirable tasks in the kitchen,” Miso CEO Dave Zito told my colleague Chris Albrecht last month. And as panelists at SKS 2018 were quick to note, robots are really good at precise, mechanical tasks, and really bad at anything involving emotions, whether that’s pep-talking a stressed out employee or ensuring in-house diners get the best experience the restaurant can offer.

The NRA isn’t throwing the word “emotion” around, in its report or otherwise, it does seem to be getting at the idea that restaurants are investing in tech to make the mundane tasks more efficient and free up time for staff to focus on the guests. “One major development over the next decade for the industry will be how this technology is integrated to make sure this remains the ‘hospitality’ industry,” Hudson Riehle, the Nation’s Restaurant Association’s senior vice president of the research and knowledge group, told Nations Restaurant News.

That technology investment, according to the NRA report, includes front-of-house tech that can enable better online ordering capabilities, mobile payments, and delivery operations, and back of house products like POS systems and inventory management software. Again, that’s tasks that tend to be repetitive, boring, and unnecessarily time-consuming for workers. And much of that tech will power off-premises dining, the other major trend highlighted in the NRA’s report.

For in-house customers, though, the rise of robots won’t mean the end of human workers. That’s good news both for the workforce, who needs jobs, and for customers, who often prefer a side of emotional contact served up with their chicken tenders.

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