The Challenges and Opportunities of Restaurant Robots, From Disco Dancing to Delighting Customers

Despite their novelty to the restaurant industry, robots have been around a long time. According to Eric Roberts, the former director of undergraduate studies for the Computer Science Department at Stanford, the ancient Egyptians used water-powered human-shaped carvings to automatically strike bells marking the start of every hour. In 1961, American inventor George Devol was granted the first patent for a robot called Unimate, which garnered widespread public interest and even appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. By 1969, General Motors was using Unimate spot welding robots to produce twice as many cars as its competitors.

Fast forward to 1983, and we finally start to see robots in the restaurant industry—albeit with some attitude that today’s programmers would probably avoid. This marks the year that the Two Panda Deli in Pasadena, California, deployed two robots to carry Chinese food to customers’ tables. While Tanbo R-1 and R-2, as the robots were called, could be courteous with phrases like “Will there be anything else?” and “See you tomorrow”, they were programmed to respond to confusing customer requests by saying “That’s not my problem” while they danced to disco music.

Today, with people accustomed to highly responsive technology in everything from smartphones to voice assistants, scenarios like dancing robots frustrating customers with their lack of knowledge are even less appealing than they were in the early 1980s. As we start the 2020s, the restaurant industry is facing rising labor costs, outdated safety standards and public perception challenges – all of which create opportunities for a robotic workforce to improve the efficiency and customer service of restaurants.

Labor Costs

The challenge: While robots do not require as much downtime as employees, the high initial investment makes them prohibitively expensive for many single location restaurants.

The opportunity: Many ghost kitchens allow small restaurants to rent space that already includes the latest machinery.

As we covered in our previous post on restaurant robots, the high turnover rate for food service jobs is forcing restaurant operators to look for ways to increase efficiency. As a result, more restaurants are looking to fill the labor gap with robots that can wait tables, flip burgers and mix drinks. Adjusting for inflation, the Tanbo twins from 1983 were $50,000 each, which is still within the range of how much robots cost today. Flippy, the robotic arm that doubles as a fry cook, originally started at $60,000 when it debuted a few years ago, and the price went up to $100,000 for features that allow it to take over more back of house (BOH) functions. The manufacturer, Miso Robotics, has since decreased the entry level model to $30,000 and launched another product at the same starting price. This is just under the mean annual wage of cooks, which is $30,360, allowing restaurants to get a faster return on investment than before.

Ghost kitchens—which are rented spaces designed to prepare delivery orders with no front of house (FOH)—cost $30,000 to start as well, making them affordable for any restaurant looking at the other two options. Instead of renting or buying advanced robotics equipment directly, you can find virtual kitchens that already include this technology for one monthly fee.

Safety Standards

The challenge: OSHA’s lack of robotics standards makes it difficult to develop consistent safety protocols and training programs for humans who will be working in the same kitchen as robots.

The opportunity: Other organizations are stepping in to fill the information gap.  

ROAR, Miso’s new product, stands for “Robot on a Rail,” and can work two stations at once, creating a new set of challenges for restaurant operators as they use technologies that can multitask with their existing human workforce. One challenge is the lack of updated guidelines for safely working with robots in a kitchen setting. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) last addressed this issue in 1987 – just one year after the company behind Tanbo had to buy back one of its robots from a dissatisfied restaurant owner. This was a time when most robots and humans worked separately in a factory setting, which is far different than a smaller, collaborative BOH environment that robots like ROAR are occupying today. In 2017, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) created the Center for Occupational Robotics Research (CORR) in response to the lack of modern OSHA standards for robotics.

Especially when working around a hot stove or gas fryers, having mechanical arms do the heavy lifting can prevent some workplace injuries simply by allowing humans to avoid these potentially dangerous tasks. However, restaurant robots—or any automated system with moving parts—have the same potential hazards as industrial robots as defined by OSHA. This includes collision or crushing accidents if mechanical parts fail to have enough sensors to detect people around them with a 360 degree view, mechanical parts falling into food, and interference with other systems connected to the same network. Having a new set of standards for robots will be critical as more restaurants use them in the future. Americans are still relatively divided on the need for this, with 32% wanting the government to develop new standards and 29% saying there is no need. As more consumers see robotics in their favorite dining establishments, however, public support for more guidelines will likely increase.

Public Perception

The challenge: 72% of Americans are worried about robots taking over their jobs.

The opportunity: Robots will create 58 million more jobs than they displace.

The restaurant industry currently has the lowest unemployment rate since 1969, falling to 3.5% in September 2019 even as more restaurants invest in automation. Many people mistake robots for replacement workers rather than accounting for the different types of jobs they will create, including more nuanced versions of the fast food jobs that already exist. Robots like Flippy are currently advanced enough to master some BOH tasks like cooking food, but artificial intelligence (AI) software is still in its infancy – meaning humans can still interact with customers and handle a wide range of FOH issues more effectively.

AI systems that greet customers are in development, creating more opportunities for employees to train them. As we covered in our post on drive-thru technology, employees’ jobs will run smoother because they will share more responsibilities with AI software. Humans will no longer need to remember to upsell every customer or worry about entering orders correctly. Instead, drive-thru employees will work alongside voice ordering software to correct its mistakes and handle food preparation tasks while the software takes orders. This cross collaboration between humans and machines addresses many challenges that QSRs are facing, helping to increase speed of service, order accuracy and personalization to improve the experience for customers.

Check out our other posts for information on how artificial intelligence will affect table service restaurants specifically, tips on using AI to transform your workforce, new technologies that will improve drive-thru efficiency, and many other important aspects of managing your restaurant.

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