Thanks in large part to pandemic pressures, total revenue for U.S. quick-service restaurants dropped down to $239 billion last year. Unfortunately, as quick-service restaurant operators try to ramp up staff and sales now that health concerns are stabilizing, they are facing a massive staffing crisis. While posters promoting open positions and staff incentives crowd almost every restaurant and drive-thru window across the country, foodservice workers are not lining up in droves. Thousands of entry-level foodservice workers moved on to other positions in the delivery arena like DoorDash or Amazon during the pandemic, and unstaffed quick-service restaurant positions are slowing down the economic recovery for food operators. Yet, many technology naysayers still cling to the “robots replace humans” argument in an effort to keep quick-service restaurant operators from investing in food robotics to keep pace with the next era of food service.
Robots do not put human jobs at risk in the foodservice industry. The foodservice industry (like every industry) will continue to be led and managed by human staff—in fact, human staff plays an absolutely integral role in the food robotics evolution for quick-service restaurants. Working closely with key partners like Walmart and Jamba for initial Blendid kiosk locations in California, we’ve seen firsthand how robots are helping expand accessibility and availability at all hours of a day to healthy food options, especially where hiring and staffing limitations would typically make it incredibly cost prohibitive. So here’s how real people fit into the food robot mix:
The quick-service restaurant dynamic is rapidly changing. Consumers now want access to healthier food options—anytime, anywhere and, thanks to COVID, with as little human intervention as possible. It might sound like prepacked, shelf-stable food choices would be a way to meet those demands, but today’s consumers also want those healthier and freshly prepared fast-food options to be totally customizable … and don’t forget, they still want it at near dollar-menu prices. However, quick-service restaurant operators are in a constant battle to recruit, train, and retain staff, especially for tedious foodservice and food-prep roles. Robots add a layer of consistency that can help reduce the costs and headaches of trying to fill (and continuously refill) these roles.
Robots expand the potential quick-service restaurant footprint. Robotic platforms create more favorable economics for operators and a much wider potential footprint by eliminating high-traffic return on investment restrictions, making it easier to justify staffing, stocking and servicing fresh, customized food options at low- and medium-traffic locations.
Robots make stellar coworkers. Many entry-level food service workers have absolutely no real interest in preparing food, sanitizing food surfaces, doing endless piles of dishes, or interacting with others. Robots can take on those tedious tasks, from contactless ordering and counter service, to precise measurements, food prep and even much of the cleaning so human workers can focus on a range of new and rewarding positions. Better yet? There are no forced or awkward conversations to manage when a robot is the one by your side.
Technology is cool. Even better than picking up the mundane tasks and roles most workers don’t want to take on, robots also add an element of futuristic fun to the work environment. (I know that I love getting to say that I work with robots.) As millennials and zoomers (GenZ) take over the food service workforce, tech natives will readily embrace new automation platforms not just for the “cool” factor, but because they are comfortable relying on, and often even expect, technology to make their day-to-day tasks easier.
For quick-service restaurant navigating ever-tightening operating margins and unable to fully staff their current operations, meeting changing consumer demands for rapid, contact-free access to affordable, fresh, healthy food on the go is a daunting, and often futile, effort. However, food automation platforms powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced visual and robotics technologies are changing the fast-food dynamic. Forward-thinking leaders investing in new robotic food automation platforms now will be able to give consumers (and employees) what they want both today and in the years ahead. In the not-so-distant future, these robotic food stations will line the checkout areas of major retailers and the hallways of airport terminals, hospitals, universities and shopping malls around the globe. AI-powered robots will bring the future of highly personalized, healthy, fresh, and delicious food options to life.
Vipin Jain is CEO and co-founder of Blendid. Blendid offers a proprietary food automation platform (foodOS™) to efficiently and safely prepare and serve a range of healthy, fresh and delicious options.