Can Machines Help Address the Restaurant Labor Shortage?

The employee shortage has stretched on for the better part of a half-decade. In response, an increasing number of concepts have started augmenting their employee rosters with machines.

Americans are finally getting back to work as the United States continues recovering from the pandemic and a nationwide shutdown. However, despite encouraging numbers, not every industry is bouncing back as quickly as we would like.  

Unfortunately, the restaurant industry is still grappling with an ongoing labor problem. In May 2021, restaurants and bars added about 186,000 jobs but are still 2.54 million jobs off Labor Department numbers dating back to March 2020. 

The result has been disastrous for some concepts. Images circulating on social media show restaurants closed because there are not enough employees to work that day. Others are making do with smaller crews and teams forced to take on more duties. 

The employee shortage has stretched on for the better part of a half-decade. In response, an increasing number of concepts have started augmenting their employee rosters with machines. They are a cheap, reliable way for operators to offer guests a contactless and interactive way to order and pay for food without speaking with another person.

How Do Kiosks, Dynamic Ordering, and Other Machines Improve Business?

Before the pandemic set in, restaurant kiosks were a welcome nice-to-have for innovators and innovators in the making who wanted to have an additional ordering touchpoint in their eateries. More recently, the need for kiosks has evolved from something that would be a great restaurant addition to a must-have item that makes contactless ordering easier. 

Although installing kiosks does not entirely fix the labor issues restaurants are dealing with right now, they fill a critical void in the ordering process. They can also free up time for employees to complete other tasks. 

Emily New, Director of Growth for Bite, says her company has seen a 125% increase in demand year over year for digital ordering products. She believes providing digital ordering to guests is not just something operators should do to replace a person. Instead, kiosks can give guests a clean, fast, and accurate contactless ordering experience compared to traditional ordering methods. 

“By having multiple, contactless order points throughout the store, restaurants now require less staff, but are still maintaining the same — if not increasing— throughput,” New explained. “Kiosks effectively eliminate any miscommunications between the guest and the employee with order input, especially when it comes to complex orders. They also boost customer confidence as they often allow guests to see all the ingredients, which is especially important for those with dietary restrictions. Combined, these benefits increase the order accuracy and directly lead to higher guest satisfaction.” 

And when guests are happy, feel understood, and have their needs catered to? Well, they spend more money. 

“Visuals trigger and direct the decision-making process, so by displaying images of the menu items to the guest, kiosks naturally increase the number of items in the order,” New said. “Bite kiosks are equipped with Bite Lift, a proprietary algorithm designed to show personalized suggestions to the guest based on previous orders or purchasing patterns — ultimately increasing the check size by 20%.”

Kiosks Have the Ability to Make Employees Better

Suggesting that kiosks and other digital ordering devices will replace humans is a little overkill, but they will affect individual roles. Kiosks are capable of increasing order throughput and can quickly help line bust during busy periods. Kitchens will need to be ready for an influx of orders, making cross-training employees important. 

In fact, kiosks and other digital ordering devices might make the employee experience better at work by giving workers opportunities to interact with guests in meaningful ways. 

“Kiosks allow for smarter staffing decisions and allow restaurants to move employees from behind the counter to more impactful and productive roles such as dining room greeting, delivery, and cleaning,” New said. “Employee time spent actually improving the guest experience versus inputting an order is always good for business.” 

Despite the lack of human touch, it seems guests don’t mind serving as their own order taker and cashier at their favorite quick service or fast casual restaurant. Not only are they spending more on each order, but their total order times are up to 40% faster than a standard in-person order. 

It’s not just that digital ordering is fast – they are accurate too. Kiosks effortlessly integrate with the restaurant’s point of sale system, giving them a real-time view of inventory levels. As a result, they can track ingredients and remove menu items as they sell out or become unavailable, resulting in fewer disappointed or upset customers.

What Does Digital Ordering Mean for Restaurant Revenue?

Typically, people don’t adopt innovative technologies if they don’t help those who are using them. Luckily, digital ordering products are opening the door for a contactless approach to dining, giving guests control and allowing restaurant employees to do more than tap a terminal screen for an entire shift. 

It’s a situation that Spencer Rubin, Founder and CEO of Melt Shop, has seen play out in his restaurants over time and is thankful to see happening. 

“[Digital ordering] has been instrumental in helping us grow top-line when we’ve needed it most,” said Rubin. “The recommendations they show are what our guests want, leading to significantly higher check average and flow through to our bottom line. Our guest experience is stronger, and our employees are happier, using the extra time they have from removing cashier responsibilities to focus on hospitality and throughput.” 

Long story short, machines can help save money, better use restaurant resources, and generate more revenue. 

Employees generally have a variety of responsibilities and tasks, but if the employee takes 286 orders/day at a rate of 45 seconds per order, that totals 214 minutes (about 3 and a half hours) of order taking,” New explained. “If an employee is getting paid $15 per hour, 214 minutes equals $53.40 per day and $1,605 per month. When Bite can come in with two kiosks for $500 per month, spending $1,605 versus $500 each month becomes a simple decision for restaurants.”

Will Machines Take Over Restaurant Operations?

We are already seeing large brands dive into the digital revolution. Taco Bell recently opened a fully digital location in Times Square featuring 10 kiosks, dropping the need for analog menu boards. The idea is to reduce the number of employees physically taking orders and increase the amount of interaction those workers have with guests. 

In most cases where digital ordering has been added, the results have been pretty good. Harvard Business Review noted in 2015 that brands like Taco Bell and McDonald’s reported better sales compared to your average human order taker by about 20%. McDonald’s even noted a sales boost as high as 30%.  

Machines might not be as charming as your average person standing behind a counter, but they make business sense. Kiosks and other digital ordering options are the perfect answer for guests who are still concerned about COVID.  They are always upselling, and they can introduce guests to new menu items, loyalty programs, and other brand products. 

Although improving the bottom line is important, adding kiosks and other contactless digital ordering options is not meant to completely replace the human element. If anything, adding machines should free up your best employees to provide the best guest experience imaginable.

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