Automation, Hospitality, and Employee Retention: It’s All About Balance

    Can technology for restaurants enhance experience for consumers and staff alike?

    QR code inside a restaurant.
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    When asked to pick two areas of investment for operators to focus on, 42 percent of consumers said order accuracy, 36 percent said speed of service, and 29 percent said face-to-face customer service.

    Automation. Robotics. The pivot to contactless engagements. In foodservice, after the disruption of the last two years, and now with prices on the rise and labor challenged, leaning in to these seems to make sense—until remembering that foodservice is part of the hospitality industry.

    The cornerstone of hospitality is the warm, friendly interaction between people that results in a pleasant experience. In the case of foodservice, that interaction is between staff and patrons and is generally labeled as customer service. It’s something operators and consumers have embraced for decades upon decades. At least until 2020, that is, when the foodservice industry came to screeching halt and human contact was taboo.

    This pause in business as usual turned hospitality on its head. In a quest to find a profitable path forward, many operators began reducing and nearly eliminating staff and, as a matter of course, that human touch. Consumers began embracing the speed and efficiency of meal delivery and take out and the near risk-free dining experiences they offer.

    Though born out of necessity, the big question now is whether or not this Jetson-like world can, will or should last. Georgia-Pacific’s GP PRO sought answers by conducting proprietary research among consumers and foodservice workers. The responses provide compelling learnings for operators looking to not only survive the pandemic but to evolve and pivot in order to succeed.

    Find the Sweet Spot

    Every person has a different appreciation for and acceptance of technology, and it comes as no surprise that age is a defining factor. GP PRO’s research found that the majority (53 percent) of the Silent Generation and nearly half (48 percent) of Baby Boomers welcome “some attention” when dining out by way of engaging but non-disruptive customer service; and roughly one-third of Gen Xers (31 percent), Millennials (32 percent) and Gen Zers (31 percent) prefer to engage with staff only “as needed.” Only slightly fewer Gen Zers (27 percent) consider themselves “DIY diners” who want a completely self-service dining experience from start to finish.

    Across all age demographics combined, 34 percent of diners welcome staff attention, 25 percent want someone available if needed, 22 percent appreciate small talk with staff, 11 percent want complete independence, and 8 percent seek engaging conversation with staff.

    Invest Where it Matters to Consumers

    It’s pretty rare for operators to actually seek insights from consumers on where investments are needed to improve the establishment’s overall business. Some might argue that these insights aren’t needed because the answer lies in technology. There’s certainly some truth in that. But what kind of technology in particular? Margins are thin, perhaps more so now than ever before, so giving consumers a voice and then investing in what they see as most important is critical to helping secure repeat business, build loyalty, and secure brand advocacy.

    When asked to pick two areas of investment for operators to focus on, 42 percent of consumers said order accuracy, 36 percent said speed of service, and 29 percent said face-to-face customer service. Only 10 percent of consumers want to see operators invest in app development for mobile ordering, and just 6 percent in automation to minimize contact with employees.

    Invest Where it Matters to Employees 

    It’s been said repeatedly that the last two years have been among the most trying two years ever for the foodservice industry. Closure mandates, mask mandates, supply chain issues, inflation, food shortages, and the list goes on. Emotions are up, and revenue is down.

    But don’t forget that foodservice workers have been on this rollercoaster, too. Most lost their jobs through no fault of their own for at least some part of the pandemic. Many couldn’t return when the opportunity presented itself, others wouldn’t, and some came back only to leave soon after.

    It’s easy to point the finger at what some might call fickle hourly employees. But GP PRO’s research shows that foodservice workers who were employed for some or all of the past two years believe there is a way through—via higher wages (62 percent), stronger leadership (42 percent), and being valued by management (40 percent). Even without those investments, 83 percent of foodservice workers said they are very or somewhat likely to continue working in the industry. Why? For more than half of them (56 percent, they enjoy interacting with customers.

    Cindy Egnarski owns a Figaro’ Pizza and Cousin’s Subs in Pulaski, Wisconsin. With 18 years of experience in the foodservice industry, she believes these research findings are on the mark. “The best part of working in foodservice is creating a great experience for my staff and my customers, and great experiences are generally built on human relations. Automation that empowers that kind of interaction and that enhances the experience for staff and patrons is the kind of automation I find most valuable.”

    Human connection. Hospitality. Technology. If the research is any indicator, the delicate balance may just lie in automation that improves operational efficiency and supports an enhanced experience for consumers and staff alike.

    Alec Frisch is vice president and general manager of Foodservice with GP PRO, a division of Georgia-Pacific. GP PRO and its Dixie brand solutions are helping operators innovate and build business with touchless dispensing systems and foodservice disposables that empower productivity and hygiene. Contact Alec at Alec.Frisch@gapac.com.