Why restaurant chains are investing in robots and what it means for workers

Businesses investing in robots to see if a robot can create tortilla chips in-store, Chipotle Mexican Grill is doing research. In at least two locations, Sweetgreen intends to automate the production of salads. Additionally, Starbucks hopes that its coffee-making machinery will make baristas’ jobs easier.

The restaurant business saw a flurry of automation announcements this year as owners rushed to address a declining workforce and rising wages. However, the progress has been patchy thus far, and experts predict it will be years before robots become profitable for businesses or replace employees.

Business Investing in Robots

To see if a robot can create tortilla chips in-store, Chipotle Mexican Grill is doing research. To make salads automatically, Sweetgreen David Henkes, a principal at Technomic, a restaurant research company, said, “I think there’s a lot of experimentation that is going to lead us somewhere at some point, but we’re still a very labor-intensive, labor-driven industry.”

Even before the Covid epidemic, it was difficult for restaurants to recruit and keep staff. The issue was made worse by the global health crisis, as many laid-off employees departed for other positions and never came back. The lack of sufficient staff is preventing three-quarters of restaurant owners from functioning at full capacity, the National Restaurant Association claims.

Many restaurant owners raised wages to entice workers but doing so put profit margins under strain at a time when food prices were also rising.

Startups in automation offer themselves as a remedy. They claim that drive-thru orders can be more correctly taken by computers using artificial intelligence and that robots can more reliably flip hamburgers and assemble pizzas than tired employees.

The year of the Robot

Miso Robotics, which has funded $108 million as of November and has a valuation of $523 million, is the source of many of the industry’s buzzy automation announcements this year.

Flippy, a robot that can be trained to flip hamburgers or prepare chicken wings, is Miso’s most eye-catching creation. It can be rented for about $3,000 per month.

The burger business White Castle has installed Flippy at four of its sites and promised to upgrade 100 more when it renovates restaurants. In order to create tortilla chips, Chipotle Mexican Grill is testing the machinery at a restaurant in California under the name “Chippy.”

According to Miso CEO Mike Bell, “The biggest value benefit that we deliver to a restaurant is not to cut their expenses, but to enable them to sell more and create a profit.”

But after more than a year, Flippy at Buffalo Wild Wings is still in the testing stage. Miso is merely one of the collaborators with whom Inspire Brands, the parent company that also owns Dunkin’, Arby’s, and Sonic, has partnered to automate the frying of chicken wings.

Pizza assembly machinery by Picnic Works automates the addition of sauce, cheese, and other toppings. At a site in Berlin, a Domino’s franchisee is testing the technology.

Prices to rent equipment from Picnic start at $3,250 per month. According to CEO Clayton Wood, subscription-based pricing makes the technology accessible to smaller enterprises. According to Pitchbook, the business has raised $13.8 million at a $58.8 million value.

Automation trials at Panera Bread have included a Miso system that checks coffee volume and temperatures to improve quality and artificial intelligence software that can process drive-thru orders.

“When people hear the phrase automation, they frequently picture a robot cooking burgers or frying potatoes. George Hanson, the chain’s chief digital officer, said: “That is not our emphasis.

Success is not assured, though. Early in 2020, Zume switched its emphasis from employing robots to prepare, cook, and distribute pizza to packaging food. The business received a $375 million investment from SoftBank in 2018 that, according to reports, valued it at $2.25 billion. The startup did not respond to a request for comment.

The labor question

Workers and labor activists frequently object to automation because they see it as a tool for businesses to remove jobs. However, restaurant businesses have been praising their research as a means of enhancing working conditions by eliminating monotonous chores.

With the technology it obtained from purchasing company Spyce, Sweetgreen wants to open two sites the next year that will largely automate the salad-making process. Nic Jammet, co-founder and chief concept officer of Sweetgreen, stated at the Morgan Stanley Global Retail and Consumer Conference in early December that the new restaurant-style will reduce the amount of staff needed for shifts.

Jammet also mentioned lower turnover rates and an enhanced employee experience as other benefits. A Sweetgreen official declined to comment on this article.

Professor of economics Casey Warman predicts that the restaurant industry’s desire for automation will result in a long-term reduction in employment.

“Once the machines are in place, they won’t go backward,” he said, especially if there are significant cost reductions.

Warman also remarked that Covid lessened resistance to automation as people grew accustomed to using mobile applications to purchase fast food and self-checkout lanes at grocery stores.

Long-term skepticism

It’s not apparent at this time whether or when any cost reductions will occur.

After purchasing artificial intelligence startup Apprentice more than a year and a half ago, McDonald’s started developing software that could take orders through a drive-through window. The fast-food colossus sold the operation to IBM as part of a strategic alliance to advance the technology a few months after disclosing the test.

According to a research note from BTIG analyst Peter Saleh in June, the voice-ordering software had accuracy in the low 80% range at the roughly two dozen Illinois test locations, much below the aim of 95%.

Additionally, McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski cast doubt on the viability of complete automation on an earnings call this summer.


“While the concept of robots and all those things may be excellent for generating headlines, it’s not feasible in the vast majority of restaurants,” he added. “The math doesn’t add up… You won’t be seeing that as a widespread option any time soon.

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