It was only a matter of time before tech took over the restaurant industry: from ordering kiosks to biometric employee clocking, the hospitality sector is learning to welcome the changes that come along with the digital age. The the automation of food is here - but how far will it go? Is the inevitable robot takeover upon us? As an industry that relies heavily on unskilled manual labor, do restaurants stand to be the most vulnerable to technological advancements?
Robots vs. People
Some restaurants have already stepped into the future and begun to look to technology to carry out basic tasks. In Pasadena, CaliBurger uses its burger-flipping robot Flippy to turn patties at the griddle rather than line cooks. Up the coastline, California pizzeria Zume uses robots to make pizzas. The Tipsy Robot, a bar in Las Vegas, features robots who can mix, pour, and garnish drinks for patrons in less than 90 seconds.
Automation draws attention and excitement, serving as a clear example of the vast applications of technology and perhaps a peek into the future.
Robots performing basic tasks is one thing; they can easily be programmed to carry out a few different motions and repeat them indefinitely. But can robots replace chefs, the backbone of creativity in hospitality? The masterminds behind original recipes and concepts have remained superior thus far. IBM supercomputer Watson was used to collaborate on menu ideation at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. It was fed a bunch of recipes and asked to come up with new combinations of flavors and dishes based on their molecular compatibility and cuisine type. Watson provided lists of new ingredient combinations, but could not account for measurements, quantity, or presentation. It was up to chefs to turn the mix-and-match tastes into actual dishes.
MIT recently announced the development of an artificial intelligence software that can offer recipes for a dish just by looking at a photo of it. The AI works by analyzing an image and searching its database of over a million recipes to find a potential match. It’s purpose is to eventually stand as an alternative to cookbooks, but the technology is still far from accuracy - it couldn’t even identify french fries!
Basically, there’s no way it can match the knowledge and accessibility of cookbooks or their authors for years to come.
Virtual Reality as a Training Tool
Virtual reality has been used primarily as an entertainment device, syncing with smartphones and video game consoles to provide an ultra high-tech experience to everyday consumers. But its business applications - like risk-free employee field training - are slowly being realized and capitalized upon.
VR training tools and programs can be integrated into restaurant operations to help new hires learn the ropes. Rather than watching training videos, employees gain hands-on experience in a low-risk environment, which has proven to be more effective than some traditional training methods. Google tested out its VR training device with a coffee-making trial, where a trainee used a simulated espresso machine. When compared to a group that trained using Youtube videos, the VR group was quicker and more precise.
Robots are Here to Help
At the end of the day, food service is something that is inherently human and personal. No type of automation can deliver the creativity, attention, and care that restaurant staff members do. Sure, it’s cool to have robot bartenders whip up cocktails, but rest assured, restaurant workers are far from being replaced.
The integration of technology in restaurants will more likely cause a shift in roles rather than a mass elimination of them. Automation can carry out menial, time-consuming tasks with tireless efficiency. This way, employees are freed up to attend to customers and other issues while automated systems take care of things like ordering and payment. Panera, for one, has been able to improve its service by offering table delivery and actually hire more workers since installing kiosk systems for ordering.
While robots may change the roles of hospitality workers, humans remain superior, and we have averted the robot takeover for now. Phew.