Automate or die? We’re not quite there yet, but the ability to supplement or replace human labor with automated solutions is fast becoming a lifeline for many foodservice operators. And really, while Jetson-Esque robots taking orders, cooking, and delivering meals may not come to a restaurant near you anytime soon (a few exceptions aside), automated solutions of one type or another are already all around us.fes1805 automation opener

From the nation’s largest global brands to progressive healthcare companies, business and industry (B&I) operations and upstart tech-driven chains, the shift of functions from humans to machines confirms that the automation genie is out of the bottle. Applications such as front-of-the-house kiosks and the ability for customers to place orders directly and pay via mobile devices automate processes that have traditionally involved several steps and personal interaction with and among staff. Momentum is building to include sophisticated robotics and next-gen, last-mile solutions — leveraging technology to meet consumer demands for speed and anywhere, anytime access to high-quality foodservice.

Robots working alongside human line cooks and in the front of the house? Restaurant meals delivered by drones, robots, and self-driving cars? Chatbots communicating with guests online? Check, check and check. Early adopters continue to test all of the above and more, bringing into focus what promises to be a significantly more automated future for many segments of the industry.

Consider recent moves made by some leading restaurant brands:

Domino’s customers could soon get pizza delivery without any human interaction. Already a leader in automated and mobile ordering and payment technologies, the company is now partnering with Ford to test self-driving cars for delivery. Photo courtesy of Domino’s

Shake Shack opened a kiosk-only, completely cashless unit at Astor Place in New York City. Customers place and pay for all orders via touch-screen kiosks or mobile apps. Front-of-the-house staffers called “Hospitality Champs” assist where necessary. According to CEO Randy Garutti, the test unit represents an evolving business model for the future and the chain’s dedication to digital innovation. By the end of 2017, McDonald’s had installed digital ordering/payment kiosks in 3,000 U.S. units as part of its new Experience of the Future strategy. In the company’s fourth-quarter 2017 earnings call in late January, President and CEO Steve Easterbrook said the self-order technology would be installed in another 4,000 units this year. McDonald’s has also rolled out mobile app orders and payments in more than 20,000 units worldwide, offering curbside, in-store or drive-thru pickup options. The burger giant continues to roll out digital menus that allow the chain to analyze big data and self-adjust based on time of day or weather, automatically highlighting items that appeal on hot or cold days, respectively. Dunkin’ Donuts opened a new concept store in Quincy, Mass., in January with a dedicated drive-thru for orders placed and paid for using the DD Perks app. Inside, kiosks replace or supplement human order takers/cashiers. Domino’s Pizza offers app ordering and payment systems across every platform and continues to test an array of pioneering automation technologies. Last year the chain introduced a virtual assistant that uses conversational artificial intelligence (AI) on its mobile app to assist with virtual online ordering and other customer service functions. The assistant can hold digital conversations with customers about menus, ingredients, store locations, and operating hours. The company also rolled out the ability to order from the full menu via Facebook Messenger and Amazon Echo and is working to automate delivery by testing drones, six-wheeled robotic carts, and self-driving cars.


These companies are far from alone. Virtually every major restaurant concept and noncommercial operation of any size throughout the industry continues to make, or gear up to make, the same or similar moves toward greater automation.


Now next-gen concepts are emerging that bake in automation from the start. For example, Café X is a fully automated, cashless specialty coffee bar brand that has grown to a trio of San Francisco locations over the past 18 months. Encased in acrylic and fronted by touch-screen tablets on which customers place orders and pay — if they haven’t already done so on their phones — the kiosks house automatic coffee machines capable of brewing Americanos, espressos, cappuccinos, cortados, lattes, and flat whites with customers’ choice of locally roasted beans and milk types. Its barista, an industrial-style robotic arm, performs a set of predefined motions, such as pushing buttons, moving a cup from under the milk dispenser to the syrup dispenser, and delivering a finished beverage to a window for pickup. Depending on drink complexity, it can produce an average of two drinks per minute. The concept includes human staffers to help with the ordering process, educate customers about menu items and ingredients, and keep the cafe stocked.


Zume Pizza, also in northern California, employs pizza-making robots — named Pepe, Giorgio, Marta, Bruno, and Vincenzo — that handle repetitive, low-skill tasks such as dough pressing (five times faster than a human can and in perfect shapes), sauce spreading (exact amount every time) and placing pizzas into Zume’s 800-degree ovens (no injuries) in the company’s central production facility in Mountain View. Predictive technology guides each day’s production, indicating both volume and types of pizzas that will likely satisfy demand. Customers order online or via mobile app, and their pizzas finish cooking in transit in specially designed delivery vehicles, each fitted with dozens of automated, smart pizza ovens. The robotics-assisted production, delivery-only model, and on-route cooking combine to cut costs, speed service, and free up the startups’ 120 or so human employees, all of which are full-time, with benefits, to focus on more creative, intuitive, and skilled tasks. Source: Foodservice Equipment & Supplies Magazine

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