Can Machines Replace People? Restaurant Experts Weigh In

  • Three restaurant leaders offer their takes on restaurant automation and the new technologies that could take employees out of the equation.

    Wow Bao
    Wow Bao debuted a new automated store prototype that lets guests order on a kiosk and pick up food in a cubby.

    Technology has come a long way in the restaurant industry in the last decade. And today, following the rise of mobile platforms, operators are finding that restaurant automation—particularly with self-service ordering kiosks—is opening the door to potential labor savings.

    Just look at Wow Bao. The Chicago-based dumpling fast casual just launched its first automated eatery, which features self-ordering kiosks and individual cubbies where guests pick up their food. President Geoff Alexander says it allows restaurants to be run by as few as one employee. Many other restaurant companies are similarly looking at automation for savings, but is the strategy a sound one? Can machines ever replace people? Three industry executives offer their thoughts.

    Geoff Alexander / President, Wow Bao

    This technology is going to allow for major labor savings for a lot of other concepts. For us, it’s not as big of a labor savings because we’re already there. The difference that we’re going to have is, right now, when you go into a restaurant, you order from a cashier and you’re like the 50th person they’re waiting on. When you pick up your food at the end of the line, they’re pushing food at you to get to the next person. What we’ve done is, we’ve changed the experience in the front of the house, so there’s full hospitality. You’re not being rushed by anybody.

    There’s a difference between automation and technology. Technology is evolution, and everybody has to embrace it. It’s going to change the way we do business, the way we interact with our guests, the way we get things done, and how the guest communicates with us. The world is changing at a fast pace, and you have to evolve with it. We have the ability to run the restaurant right now on one person, and one person only. Is it faster with two? Is it more hospitable with three? The answer is yes. But as the world continues to shake out on how labor is going to be, this is going to pay dividends for us.

    Khalilah Cooper / Senior Manager of Service Innovation, Chick-fil-A

    We’ve looked at automation and leveraging technology as a way to enhance the experience, not necessarily as a way to remove human interaction. If we can simplify the experience for our guests and our customers, as well as for team members, we can actually provide more moments of connection. We look at our restaurants as places of connection, as places of community. If that is one of the purposes of our restaurant—to feed the community, to facilitate engagement and community—we definitely don’t look at automation as a way to replace employees. We look at that as an opportunity to free up the team members to better care for the guests in the restaurant, not to eliminate their jobs.

    We talked about and discussed and researched the infrastructure it would take to put in kiosks, but we thought, every guest, for the most part, is walking around with a piece of technology in their pockets that can actually facilitate that self-serve experience, and we can leverage what people already have at their fingertips to empower a self-directed or self-guided experience through the Chick-fil-A One app.

    Ashley Morris / CEO, Capriotti’s

    We are kind of at stage one in automation. We’re just using very traditional over-the-counter stuff, from an app to certain things online—nothing really internally inside the four walls just yet, as far as things that improve the guest experience, the ordering experience, or the labor model. The reasoning for that is due to our size; we don’t have the resources to necessarily invest in being an early adopter because, early on, the costs associated with doing that are much higher than as they hit a little bit of a critical mass.

    Automation is such a new thing that it’s going to reinvent itself every 18 months. Where we see the industry now is moving toward those ordering kiosks in the store. We think that technology is probably going to stick around for the next 36–48 months, but the long-term view on automation, I think, is really the absence of all that hardware. Right now the kiosks are leading the customer experience because the kiosks are what’s available. The guests are starting to learn how to use that. As we roll into the next phase, those kiosks will start to phase themselves out and we’ll start using the device people already have in their back pockets—their phones.