Restaurant Automation: How the Robotic Revolution May Impact Restaurant Turnover Rates

For years, the restaurant industry has faced a constant and driving issue; how to attract and hang on to talented employees. According to recent data from TDn2K, hourly turnover in March and in Q1 increased, while the industry’s year-over-year job growth increased by 2.7% in March. So, what does this mean for an industry that prides itself on pleasing customers?

No matter how hard your staff works to offer customers an unforgettable and enjoyable experience, it’s nearly impossible to do that when you don’t have enough staff to cover your restaurant. Compound that with an inability to keep people long enough to see a worthwhile investment and you’re setting yourself up for problems. Hourly employee turnover was well above 100% in 2017, while about half of all managers were replaced. The cost to replace a front-of-house or back-of-house employee is about $2,000, but $14,000 to replace a manager.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics is forecasting double-digit growth for food and beverage servers through 2026, meaning this problem is not going to be going away any time soon. In fact, if restauranteurs and operators want to be able to weather the storm, they’re going to need to find a way to make their processes more efficient.

Automation in Action: Mechanical Mayhem or Robotic Relief

Automation isn’t a new concept. It’s been used in everything from automotive manufacturing to customer service, healthcare and even retail. In 2018, Amazon opened up its Amazon Go store that runs completely without cashiers. Technology has been both a boon for industries that rely on quick, reliable and accurate service, but is also seen as a problem for workers who are being replaced. Thankfully, for those working in the hospitality and restaurant industries, the robotic revolution is not going to decimate the workforce and could quite possibly take some of the pressure off an otherwise overworked staff.

From online ordering apps and kiosks to physical robots that are cooking and building food for hungry customers, restaurants are finding new ways to do more with less. While we’re still a long way away from the days where robots are doing everything for us (though futuristic concepts like Spyce in Boston are on the cutting edge), automation has changed the way kitchens work and how staff members perform.

For example, automation can help ensure restaurants are properly staffed with the right people, preventing over- or under-staffing at different times throughout the day. Other forms of automation include kiosks, inventory tracking systems and even automatic hand sanitizers. The whole point of automation isn’t necessarily to reduce the number of people working at a restaurant, but to help them be more productive. Where an employee may spend their time figuring out inventory, an automated system not only will keep track of what’s in stock but even alert employees when an order needs to be placed. McKinsey Global Institute estimates that “73 percent of the activities workers perform in food service and accommodations have the potential for automation, based on technical considerations.”

Essentially, using robots and other automated methods to free up time for servers, cooks and managers makes it easier to focus on other tasks like creating new menu items, schedule people and order products.

Restaurant Automation and Food Safety

Automation has given managers and other employees more freedom to focus on their customers, but how do restaurant patrons benefit from the robotic revolution? In the not so far future, automation and robots may carve out an increasingly important niche on the line, preparing and cooking food.

Humans are incredibly fallible creatures. They sometimes forget to wash their hands, might use the same knife to cut raw chicken and vegetables, or lose track of what temperature their food is cooked to. This puts customers at risk of foodborne illnesses, and if there’s an outbreak it can cause a public relations firestorm. Several large-scale chains have dealt with the impacts of widespread foodborne illness outbreaks in recent years, facing a backlash of consumer distrust and lost revenue.

Robots, on the other hand, excel at tedious and menial tasks. From chopping and cooking to measuring and tracking ingredients, they can ensure consistent quality across the board. Contamination is also not a problem since different automations perform different tasks without coming into contact with each other.

This ability to separate the cooking process into individual tasks and continuously build the same menu item repeatedly provides customers with a consistent experience that isn’t reliant on cooks constantly being on their “A-game.”

Will Automation Further Hurt a Reeling Industry?

Unlike manufacturing, which lost millions of jobs due to increased automation (and saw massive upticks in productivity), the restaurant industry is in an excellent position to take advantage of a few extra artificial hands. In a 2018 article published in The Atlantic, the food-service industry boasted about 13.7 million Americans and was up close to 40 percent since 2000. The good news is compounded by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ rosy employment outlook through the next decade.

Restaurants, especially those in cities and states with higher minimum wages, may be more likely to invest dollars into machinery thanks to decreasing technology costs and greater outputs. The initial upfront costs of purchasing a kiosk or developing an online ordering app reduce the amount spent on employees and decreases the need for hiring a person to perform repetitive tasks.

Although there may be concern from some people that a squad of robots will bash through the wall and start ripping spatulas out of fry cooks’ hands, that likely isn’t going to be the case. In many cases, the jobs that will become automated are ones that likely have a ton of turnover and aren’t particularly interesting or fun. And the jobs that likely will be created from more robots and automation software will be skilled jobs meant to troubleshoot and repair those machines.

But don’t worry! Robots might be faster and more consistent, but their cold, metal arms just can’t compare to a warm, welcoming smile and impeccable customer service.