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The benefits
of restaurant
robotics and
automation

Author: Heidi Vella

A recent study from the National Restaurant Association shows 4 in 5 restaurant operators are currently understaffed, with 75% saying their restaurant was more than 10% below necessary staffing levels. In November 2021, 1 million of the 4.5 million Americans who quit their jobs were restaurant and hotel workers, a new record for the industry. Industry leaders and restaurant owners looking for solutions have identified restaurant robotics as a cost-effective way to help with everything from food preparation and delivery to customer service and cleaning.

But it's not just about recruitment and retention. Restaurant automation has the potential to improve employee conditions and productivity, save money for business owners, and increase service capacity, all of which can help the sector boost its post-pandemic economic recovery.

How are restaurant robotics currently being used?

The use of restaurant automation is so advanced that one executive from a leading restaurant robotics company said, "We're not in the phase of 'we hope it works.' We know it works. We're in the growth phase. The future is here."

One of the current leading use cases of robots is in the food preparation and cooking process. Robots have been either deployed or tested by major chains and other providers to:

Food delivery is another use case. Robot servers are used to deliver food, water, menus, utensils, refills and other needs as necessary by restaurants and dining room services provided by retirement homes and similar services. Restaurants may choose to have the robot deliver food only from the kitchen to the dining area or have a waiter join the robot server at the time of food delivery to provide an extra layer of hospitality. Automated food delivery machines are also being used or trialed for drive-thru service in Chicago, to transport food around college campuses or to deliver pizza to select customers in Houston.

Some retailers are also piloting the "restaurant in a box" or "dark kitchen" concept, which is a fully automated mini-kitchen producing food favorites direct to consumers or for delivery. An autonomous food store in Israel can produce up to 50 pizzas an hour—including dropping toppings, baking, and boxing (though it can't make the dough). Customers order food via a touch-screen kiosk that is then prepared by robots inside the kitchen. In California, a restaurant offers customers a unique dining experience where a robot cooks 100% customizable gourmet burgers. The machine runs the whole operation, aside from needing a human to restock supplies.

Restaurant automation and the benefits of robotics

According to the Global State of the Hospitality Industry Report, 87% of industry operators, owners or managers believe technology adoption has been critical for survival throughout the pandemic, with 47% of full-service operators and 37% of quick-service operators feeling new technology is crucial for their businesses.

A key benefit of restaurant robotics is to combat labor shortages in the industry, with some owners estimating one robot could perform the work of several staff members. Restaurant owners who have deployed robots have stressed they work best when enhancing the work of staff, not replacing them. They are better suited for repetitive, formulaic, and even possibly dangerous tasks that often bring on worker fatigue, such as clearing tables, frying objects in a deep fryer or working with sharp knives.

Automation also allows for a redistribution of where employees spend their time. One industry executive said wait staff working with robots went from spending 30% of their time in the kitchen to 90% of their time in the dining room, giving them more time to refill drinks, clear tables and even sell more food. This improved customer experience not only benefits diners but also the staff, with one restaurant owner reporting staff received up to 25% more in tips.

The future of restaurants

Industry experts tend to consider three variables when considering the future of restaurant automation:

  • The industry labor market
  • Customer views toward robots
  • Industry investment in technology

A key driver toward increased usage of restaurant robotics is the post-pandemic food service worker shortage, and there doesn't seem to be any obvious improvements in sight. One of the key findings in the National Restaurant Association's recent report is that a majority of restaurant operators surveyed expect the "labor shortage" to extend into at least 2023. Despite wages for food-service workers increasing to $18.09 on average in December, some industry leaders predict the current labor conditions will stay permanently.

Current consumers' acceptance of restaurant robotics appears mixed. Anecdotal evidence from owners using robots suggests they are popular with diners, although this may still be overly influenced by the novelty factor. Research by Technomic found more than 50% of consumers said they would prefer to have their food served by human staff, while a different survey found 54% have no problems ordering from a partially or fully automated kitchen. Given the broader consumer acceptance of automation in other sectors, many industry experts are confident restaurants will have a similar experience.

Around half of U.S. restaurant operators plan to deploy robotics technology in the next two to three years, while Emergen Research estimates the global food tech market will reach $342 billion by 2027. Lower costs have helped stimulate investment, as restaurant robotics stand to benefit from improvements in artificial intelligence (AI), edge computing and similar technology. However, a recent EMSI report found the industries already most invested in robotics (automotive, electronics and metal) are still the ones driving the market.

The above factors will help determine whether visions of restaurants where the only humans present are diners come true or if the future is a hybrid approach combining robots and staff each performing roles they are best accustomed to. Regardless, it is clear that restaurant automation and restaurant robotics are part of the present, and future, of the industry.

Learn how automation is helping connected restaurants improve the dining experience.

The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.