The food business is a numbers game – it is all about time, margins and efficiency. Over the years, restaurants have suffered on all three fronts, especially the last two. While labor costs have always moved in one direction, the pandemic poured accelerant on a growing problem.
The Great Resignation has been covered in detail, and people found the opportunity to break free of their jobs and move to new industries and areas that they preferred. As a result, food service brands had a smaller pool of employees who naturally, demanded a higher wage. This has affected the margins of many franchisees who are constantly bouncing between profit and loss.
Coupled with the increasing unavailability of a dependable labor force throughout the U.S., franchisors and franchisees have looked for cost-cutting measures that don’t compromise the quality of the products and services.
While brands have always made technological updates to improve customer service, they’ve been more reticent to bring tech into the kitchen. Understandably so, any automated cooking process needs to be completely perfect, and demonstrate significant improvements in terms of time and cost to justify the learning curve that comes with replacing or augmenting human labor.
Brands are certainly making that plunge now. Chicken wing brand Wing Zone also has recently announced its partnership with Miso Robotics to have all its stores fitted with the Flippy 2 robot, which is a robotic fryer. While Wing Zone will use Miso Robotics’ products to fry foods, Jack in the Box will use them to flip burgers.
Last year, Starbucks sparked a major conversation when it debuted its prototype Siren System Cold Bar model on its Starbucks Partners TikTok account — the company’s official account dedicated to employees. In the video, a Starbucks barista demonstrated the process of making a Frappuccino using this automated system with minimal input from the barista.
While employees commented, showing their excitement, many had a bone to pick with the proposed system. Some of the difficulties expressed were that busy locations would likely need multiple Siren System Cold Bars, especially during peak hours. Others had an issue with its order customization ability, with two in three drinks requiring customizations, according to Starbucks. But more importantly, employees expressed frustration with the company’s decision to tentatively spend millions of dollars on the system while effectively ignoring their growing unionization efforts.
According to Starbucks’ September press release, the system was intended to alleviate many of the daily struggles that employees faced when making beverages. It even claimed that certain drinks could be made with fewer steps and, in some cases, in half the time, but employees voiced a different opinion – that it would slow them down, increase wait times, and further complicate their already stressful workflows.
While the increased consistency in products is one element, brands are mainly looking forward to regular operating hours and a dependable workforce that never gets tired or asks anything of management.
What do the new robots do?
For QSR brands that operate in the world of burgers, fries and pizza, robotic solutions exist to ease the burden on kitchen staff.
Miso Robotics is a popular manufacturer in the industry, as the new deal with Wing Zone suggests. The company produces four products, two of which perform a very similar job. The Flippy 2 and Flippy Lite are similar solutions that offer automatic fryer robots, and much more.
The Flippy Lite is a compact tool, it’s three feet deep and six feet wide, and comes with storage facilities too. It can even season the foods it fries. Its bigger counterpart, the Flippy 2, is larger and can handle more complex tasks. While the Flippy 2 robot starts a $3,000 a month, the average cost of employee turnover can cost a franchisee $150,000 a year.
Coffee is big business, with main streets and cities around dotted with coffee shops and bigger restaurant brands that serve on-the-go beverages. It’s, therefore, no surprise that Miso Robotics has created an A.I.-powered system to deliver the perfect cup of coffee.
The CookRight Coffee system alerts staff to replace urns and ingredients to make sure customers get a tasty, hot cup of coffee. The CookRight system isn’t finished; it plans to add a grill system managed by A.I. A camera would watch the grill, and alert staff members to flip whatever is cooking.
While some of these solutions do not remove the need for staff, they greatly increase consistency and reduce the burden on employees.
Why are they needed?
In an industry that has its profits determined by small margins, it’s not difficult to see why franchisors are chasing more efficient operations processes. In the average QSR, a fast-food worker is typically paid just above the federal minimum wage. Employees are fundamental to the smooth and successful running of a restaurant; technology hasn’t even come close to replacing employees in most restaurants.
Menus are intentionally kept small, and franchisors are able to buy in large quantities, keeping the prices down. As time has gone on, so has the footprint of locations. As fewer customers eat in-store, brands have been more than happy to cut down on size, therefore reducing construction and running costs. Staff is the one area where brands have not been able to truly innovate.
Employees are needed to cook orders and serve customers, as well as clean tables and floors. The pay of food service workers has been an issue in the U.S. for a long time, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought it all to the fore. Many worked through the pandemic as essential staff with little to no extra recompense, and many more just wanted to get away from the job.
This has all resulted in staff shortages for many QSR brands. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ figures from April 2021 showed that only one in five quick-service operators reported employee counts at normal, meaning another four were operating with insufficient staff or reduced operating hours. In January 2021, only eight per cent of restaurant operators cited staff retention and recruitment as their top concern, compared to 78 per cent in July.
Technological solutions also appear to be the best way to safeguard customers against unclean practices and Taffer’s Tavern has invested heavily in this concept.
“When I created Taffer’s Tavern, I built a business model that included a clearly defined expectation and protocol for each restaurant when it came to safety,” said Jon Taffer, the star of Paramount’s Bar Rescue and founder of Taffer’s Tavern.
“That became known as The Taffer’s Safe Dining System. Concurrently, I created the ‘kitchen and bar of the future’ that was held to these same strict standards. For instance, at the bar, all glassware is cleaned using CO2 glass frosters to instantly chill and sanitize the glass upon contact.
“My goal was to make Taffer’s Tavern the safest restaurant franchise brand to date, and with our safe dining system in place, I believe we have accomplished that.”
David Bloom, chief development and operations officer for Wing Zone and Capriotti’s, points out that automation can actually help safeguard employee wage growth.
“Aside from the obvious increases in efficiency, dependability and consistency of operations, there are significant increases in employee satisfaction and employee wage growth potential as their jobs become more focused on hospitality and supporting the technology,” he explained.
“Being able to staff the restaurants during off-peak hours, late at night or even 24 hours become so much more doable for brands or locations that have that demand. Additional benefits include smaller real estate footprints, speed of service and order accuracy improvements, as well as a reduction in the transmission of food born illnesses.”
Even brands like McDonald’s have had to curtail operating hours, choosing to forgo the late-night trade. Restaurant Brands International’s QSR brands have also made similar decisions.
“We saw about an average of [a] one-hour reduction in operating hours at Popeyes during this quarter relative to pre-pandemic levels, which obviously, has an impact, and that was disproportionately impacting our late-night business, which historically over indexes in family and which comes along with a pretty high check,” said José Cil, CEO of Restaurant Brands International, on the company’s Q3 earnings call.
As it stands, Flippy 2 is more expensive than an employee at that station, but the extra cost comes from the reliability and the fact that it will work 24/7. Included in the $3,000 a month charge is repair and maintenance, so operators can expect the fixing of malfunctioning robots to not cost extra.
Robots in the kitchen, already?
Most sizeable QSR brands are investigating robotics, and many have signed partnerships with companies, such as KFC with Hyundai Robotics to develop chicken cooking robots.
Wing Zone is not the only brand to make use of Miso Robotics’ solutions, Jack in the Box has too. In April, the brand announced its trial in a San Diego restaurant with the Flippy 2 and Sippy (drink-prepping machine) to free up staff time and allow them to spend more time with customers.
Panera, and two non-franchise brands, White Castle and Chipotle, have also opted to trial Miso Robotics’ offering to ascertain whether or not it is for them.
Robotics has moved into the world of pizza-making too with the Picnic pizza-assembly robot. While it’s yet to find any big takers in major pizza chains, the relative difficulty in making consistent pizzas means that Picnic robots may become a more attractive proposition in the coming year.
Robotics is inevitable
As labor supply continues to exert pressure on franchise owners, franchisors will be forced to explore either more costly and elaborate recruitment programs or consider integrating a new technology to create a more long-term solution.
“Every repetitive task can be automated over time. It’s the integration of these capabilities with all the other technology platforms we employ that will begin to yield exponential returns,” said David.
Without significant rises in pay, food service workers will continue leaving the industry. While non-compensation factors are the primary retainers of employees in more high-value roles, that wisdom should not be extended to food service workers.
QSR brands will hugely benefit from the increased consistency in orders, and automating repetitive tasks is also a reasonable form of progress in an industry hamstrung by the lack of labor.
“Our job is to put great food on a plate that creates a reaction,” pondered Jon, “and how we get there is going to change.
“We are in an industry that is evolving and at some point, there will be no human in the kitchen. We need to understand that is the ultimate extreme and all of us are going to be forced to move in that direction, with introducing robotics and different types of cooking systems and technologies. Those who don’t are going to get left behind.
“Anybody building a casual dining concept that is based on a traditional kitchen today is going to be economically destroyed, not to mention consistency and supply side issues too.”
As long as food service appears to be “undesirable”, combined with an increasingly employee-friendly labor market, franchisors will have to bet on the increased development and implementation of kitchen robotics to match their ambitions.
David Bloom, chief development and operations officer for Capriotti’s and Wing Zone
What are the benefits of bringing robotics into the kitchen?
There are a wide variety of benefits and potential competitive advantages that back-of-house robotics and automation create. Aside from the obvious increases in efficiency, dependability and consistency of operations, there are significant increases in employee satisfaction and employee wage growth potential as their jobs become more focused on hospitality and supporting the technology. Being able to staff restaurants during off-peak hours, late at night or even 24 hours becomes so much more doable for brands or locations that have that demand. Additional benefits include smaller real estate footprints, speed of service and order accuracy improvements, as well as a reduction in the transmission of food born illnesses.
Are labor pressures why QSR brands, like yourselves, use robotics?
Reliability can certainly be a benefit, but I would focus more on the availability of staff, particularly those that want to spend all day doing mundane tasks that can be easily handled by automation or rather, the lack thereof.
Are there any concerns about the cost and functionality of the robotics, and if they can truly provide efficiencies and consistency?
Think of software as a service and now robotics as a service when you think of the capital investment. Kind of like you are often leasing your POS system inclusive of service, equipment and software upgrades.
Is this something you’d like to roll out to every store, or is it only truly worth it in chosen locations?
We are certainly in the early stages of this technology adoption cycle. We believe that brands and companies who learn how to optimize and incorporate these technologies throughout their operation will have significant competitive advantages over time. That being said, we have a clear vision for what the future of Wing Zone will look like, and it’s heavily centered on new advances in tech. However, how quickly we’ll be able to get there without compromising efficiency on a location-by-location basis is yet to be determined.
Are there any other easily repeatable jobs in the kitchen that you’re looking forward to seeing robots carry out?
Every repetitive task can be automated over time. It’s the integration of these capabilities with the other technology platforms we employ that will begin to yield exponential returns.
Automation trends in restaurants
Digital menu boards
One of the most common forms of automation, digital menu boards are dynamic, customizable and can be updated in real time.
They offer multiple ordering and payment points, additional advertising and upselling avenues, reduce wait times and minimize human contact, which lessens the threat of illness. It also minimizes the employee workload so that they can focus on high-value tasks.
Automated table reservations
When things get hectic, it’s easy to make errors. However, using table reservation software allows for the maximization of front-of-house to be as efficient and error-free as possible.
Automated cooking process
While the best chefs can be considered artists, creating great-tasting food, at its core when the idea is conceptualized, cooking is a highly standardized, repetitive task that strives for consistency. And while the technology is not quite mainstream yet, brands are experimenting with robotics as they are highly customizable, standardized, hygienic and efficient.
Big-name logistics and delivery companies are already experimenting with delivery drones and since food delivery follows in similar footsteps, automated deliveries are set to revolutionize the food delivery industry.
Digital loyalty programs
While paper coupons, cards, and discount passes have been the norm, they aren’t the most efficient, often getting crumpled, lost or forgotten. A digital loyalty program not only solves this, but also provides round-the-clock tracking and the ability to personalized offers based on the customer’s preferences.