Robots are coming to restaurants whether you like it or not, both in the front and the back of the house. At a few restaurants, they’ve already arrived. But before you begin making judgments about the impact robots will have on your dining experience, take a minute to understand how and why it is happening.
What Are The Benefits Of Robots In Restaurants?
In Boston, a restaurant called Spyce recently opened. Its tagline is “culinary excellence elevated by technology.” The restaurant serves bowls that range in international styles from Korean to Lebanese, along with gluten-free and vegan options. The bowls are cooked by robots. Here’s how it works. Diners order from touchscreens mounted on tables. Their order is digitally delivered to a machine that is 14 feet long and nine feet tall, which then proceeds to grab the necessary ingredients from a refrigerated compartment, toss them into a wok, and stirfry it all together for a few minutes. For the finishing garnishes, in comes a human, who then delivers the food to the customer.
The masterminds behind this operation are Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduates. They had a key goal in mind when developing this restaurant model: They wanted students to be able to afford to eat quality and delicious meals in a restaurant, according to one of Spyce’s chief executives, Michael Farid. They weren’t trying to transform the restaurant industry outright, nor put servers and kitchen staff out of business. It’s just that it’s hard to find a decent meal at a restaurant for less than $10 or $12 minimum. A bowl at Spyce begins at $7.50. The price is lower because the restaurant does not have to pay as much in staff with robots in the kitchen and touchscreens for ordering; it’s as simple as that.
Spyce isn’t the only restaurant using robots either. For instance, at a restaurant in Milpitas, California, they are using robots as food runners. A Silicon Valley-based company called Bear Robotics developed a food-runner robot named Penny. Penny delivers food to customers so that servers don’t have to worry about carrying trays of food and can focus on the service instead. However, the server is the one who places the food on the table from Penny’s tray, maintaining interaction with the customer and ensuring a positive dining experience.
A robot food runner benefits the customer, the server, and the restaurant. The customer gets more streamlined service. With one of their tasks, one of their more grueling ones at that, being fulfilled by the robot, the server has more time and energy to dedicate to the customer. This leads to more enthusiastic service, leading then to the potential for bigger tips, all the while not having to tip out to a food runner. The restaurant saves money on staff costs, allowing them to charge less for meals, attracting more clientele because of the great service and price.
How To Maintain Quality With Robots
It is natural to question how it is possible to have robots cooking food that tastes as good as when a human cooks it. The initial challenge, before even getting to that question, deals with the fact that making a complex meal is not an easy feat. The robot must have the ability to handle raw materials properly and with the appropriate gentleness so as not to destroy the food. Because a lot of food is not uniform in size and shape and because some food clings to itself, like lettuces, this makes it more difficult for a robot.
The owners of Spyce took all of this into consideration when developing their robot chefs, and made sure their technology was sufficiently sophisticated to get the job done, and done well. Because the process is mechanical, the exact amount of each ingredient required is always used and the specialized method of cooking is always the same, which creates a consistently quality outcome. The robots even wash each wok after it prepares a bowl, cutting down on the dishwashing staff needed. Note that the repetitive, less pleasant tasks are the ones being fulfilled by robots.
That being said, humans are not eliminated entirely. As mentioned, the finishing touches and delivery of the dishes at Spyce are performed by human staff. Also, robots did not develop the dishes. A culinary expert is in charge of creating and crafting delicious food items for the menu. Even with robot food runners, servers are not cut out of the equation, not even close. Simply put, these robots helping carry the food from the kitchen to the table eliminate stress and burnout, making the work environment more humane for the service staff. And because of the more humane work environments, their staff turnover rates will likely fall, a huge plus for the restaurant as a whole.
Should Restaurant Staff Be Concerned?
While automation potential is high for restaurant staff, 77% for servers and 87% for kitchen workers, that does not necessarily mean the demise of the restaurant experience as we know it, for customers or workers. However, it does indicate that as AI technology continues to advance, the workforce in restaurants will likely be reshaped in coming years, impacting everyone involved, customers included.
Customers generally enjoy the human element of their experience in restaurants and bars. They like interacting with their server, perhaps even more with their bartender. Speaking of bartending, AI has entered this realm as well. Smartender is a touch-screen machine synched with a bar’s point of sale system and equipment that automatically pours drinks at the touch of a button. Tipsy Robot has robotic arms to make and even garnish drinks with. From a business standpoint, the efficiency of this technology has a lot of positives.
However, keep in mind that restaurants still have to give the customers what they want. While automation significantly decreases costs for restaurants, too much automation could deter customers as well. Society will ultimately determine how much AI will infiltrate the restaurant industry. Technology may eventually develop robots that can provide more human-like qualities that can provide aspects of hospitality that customers crave. Yet the customers will decide with their patronage at a restaurant whether or not that is enough, or if they still prefer the true human element.
Putting Things Into Perspective
Computers used to be human, a person who computes. Now, computers are machines. When machines have the power to perform tasks better than humans, we tend to feel threatened. However, the other side to that coin is that it frees us up to develop and perform more complex tasks. We adapt to the new environment. With less staff in a restaurant, where will the people that would have worked there be working? Perhaps they will be ones building the robots. Even more likely is that jobs we have never even heard of will be created as AI frees us from repetitive tasks, allowing us to work in fields that require the kind of creativity that only humans are capable of.