The widely reported labor shortages plaguing the restaurant industry don’t appear to be going away anytime soon. Even though restaurants actually gained 1.3 million jobs in the first seven months of 2021, we’re roughly a million jobs shy of pre-pandemic numbers, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Even for an industry with historically high turnover, the current labor shortfall is unsustainable. Many eateries have either shuttered or reduced operating hours just as diner demand soars for takeout and delivery services. And the “Sorry, we’re closed” signs continue to show up on windows and doors around the country as people quit restaurant jobs in droves, leaving them too understaffed to continue operations as food delivery sales surge.
From fast-food chains to neighborhood establishments, the dining experience will continue to suffer unless we can solve this labor conundrum before it’s too late. A lack of cooks and wait staff means food quality and speed of service are declining, jeopardizing customers who may decide it’s no longer worth their time or money to dine out.
As with food delivery services, technology is moving in on the business faster than anyone could have anticipated. The pandemic has been a powerful catalyst, accelerating transformative technologies such as artificial intelligence, personalization, robotics and machine learning to serve up a new vision for eating out.
Before you get too nervous about AI-powered robotic sous chefs replacing the likes of Gordon Ramsay, that’s not what a slew of innovative entrepreneurs and startups are proposing. Just like a sharp chef’s knife or a set of professional cookware, these technological add-ons give restaurateurs a new set of tools in their arsenal to help existing employees and keep customers satiated.
Fast food, just for you
An obvious example of technology in food service is personalization through smartphone apps. Visit any Starbucks, for example. Over time the app will get to know whether you love or loathe pumpkin spice in your latte and make suggestions accordingly. You can even make your coffee orders by speaking.
These tools also provide new levels of customization for customers who, for example, like Big Macs but without the sauce using McDonald’s self-service ordering kiosks. But this is just the beginning of personalization. A new generation of automated, self-service kiosks uses a host of technologies to bake fresh artisanal pizzas, among other things.
Eventually, technology could be able to scan your face, know who you are, and predict the kind of experience that’s currently only available at high-end restaurants like Eleven Madison Park, where a team of human “Dreamweavers” stand ready to deliver an utterly unique and tailored dining event.
This trend raises some important privacy questions that will no doubt need to be resolved. The convenience of face scanning will require some level of opt-in authorization, for example.
New life for empty kitchens
As the pandemic forced many perfectly operational kitchens to close early or altogether, the concept of ghost kitchens has become a growing opportunity to keep employees working and take advantage of these unused spaces for additional revenue.
A variety of virtual brands have already jumped on the ghost kitchen bandwagon, using existing kitchens and staff to launch new food concepts 24/7 without having to make huge investments in new kitchens and buildings.
It’s not just brand-aware individuals like MrBeast who are cashing in on this trend. Large companies like Dine Brands, owner of Applebee’s and IHOP, has begun integrating its Cosmic Wings virtual brand into existing Applebee’s locations. Other players such as Virtual Dining Concepts are helping restaurant owners expand into delivery-only food services without impacting their existing operations.
Our robot helpers are here
While many restaurant owners blame the labor crisis on higher unemployment benefits offered during the pandemic, workers are also demanding more flexibility, better health and safety, and higher wages before coming back. And the fact is, certain restaurant roles have proven much harder to fill than others.
A recent report by restaurant industry blog 7shifts, which surveyed over 18,000 restaurants across North America, found that 26 percent of restaurants are looking for cooks and line cooks, while 17 percent need servers, and 7 percent are seeking bartenders.
In a tight market for restaurant workers, it’s time for robots in the kitchen. At some restaurants, robots already serve and present food and even sing happy birthday to you. Other companies have begun deploying new fleets of autonomous food delivery robots at a number of major universities.
Flippy, a burger-flipping robot created by my company Miso Robotics, is pulling shifts at fast food chains including some White Castle locations, where it dutifully cooks stacks of sliders and fries for the hungry masses. It’s another example of the sea change that is rewiring the fast-food industry with artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics—not to replace human workers, but to enhance and extend what they’re already doing.
Getting started with intelligent automation
While technology and restaurants appear to be a perfect pairing, it’s not the only industry ripe for innovation. Restaurants may be leading the trend toward intelligent automation, but no matter what your focus is, it will increasingly become a fundamental way of doing business moving forward.
Getting started doesn’t require a massive technology investment. It could be as simple as identifying the types of work happening at your business to pinpoint areas where intelligent automation could play a role. Every business has areas of work that humans would rather not do—think about the “dirty, dull or dangerous” types of things—all of which could be ideal for intelligent automation implementations.
Another way to put intelligent automation to work is with personalized customer marketing that allows brands to deliver truly unique and customized experiences for every customer they serve. There are many companies that offer services to conduct these types of deep dive analyses on your business, too.
Whether you do it in house or with a specialized expert, it’s more than likely your competitors are already thinking about these emerging tech trends too, so it’s important that you don’t get left behind. Long after the pandemic eventually subsides, this type of technology will remain a new way of doing business from here on out.
Buck Jordan is the founder and CEO of Wavemaker Labs.