Will Restaurant Robots Replace Kitchen Staff?
13 min read
Are robots the future of our food service staff? I address the potential impact to our workforce, then turn to futurists, traditionalists, a moderate, and the masses to explore sociological implications of tech applied to food production.
My jaw-dropped and I gasped out loud.
I was sitting alone at a cafe as I watched a video of a food service robot make a perfect burger in mere minutes.
The video took place at the Creator restaurant in San Francisco, where an A.I. focused machine successfully created a “perfect” burger using fresh, quality ingredients.
Insider video description:
The robot makes the customizable burger from start to finish and could be the future of the restaurant industry.
“We’re serving a very high quality gourmet burger with high-end ingredients at six bucks,” Creator restaurant CEO & Co-founder Alex Vardakostas explains in the video.
“NEXT, THE TOPPINGS ARE SLICED FRESH,” the caption displays.
“Solving an engineering challenge like this has been incredibly difficult. There’s been a conversation about these things taking away jobs and I think the reality is, it doesn't make sense to have to fear better tools and better equipment, at the end of the day it’s making a much higher quality product at a better price available to everybody. This impacts everyone who eats, which is all of us,” Vardakostas remarks.
Indeed, Vardakostas has a point. We have advanced as a human race because of pushing limits through the ingenuity of new tools and innovation. That is an indisputable fact of survival and futurism.
“It uses some gourmet techniques that are pretty much impractical to do by hand. So as an example, we literally align the meat as it’s coming out of the grinder to go vertically along with your bite so your incisors kinda hit the seams of the meat and it crumbles in your mouth as opposed to having your teeth cut through them,” Vardakostas explains.
A cool, sleek design that produces a magical burger in such a perfect manner that meat magnificently crumbles in your mouth?...Oh boy, I can get behind that. But this “good quality ingredients” plus “zero human in process” producing “a perfect six dollar burger” has me me all sorts of confused. This is such a futuristic process that my 2019 brain frankly hadn’t thought possible…kind of like that magic pizza oven my brother always dreamed of.
But what about…jobs?
potential Impact to FOOD SERVICE STAFF—aka humans
The staffing challenge
Anshul Mangal, founder of Deadbolt, Pink Squirrel, and Furious Spoon, spoke at a recent food industry symposium at Chicago’s The Hatchery at ICNC. “The number one most difficult challenge with food service can be surmised in one word: staffing.” Mangal went on to explain that the perils of staff turn-over and poaching are constant and back-breaking.
Bob Blair, executive chef and owner of Fuel Cafe—a Denver farm-to-table restaurant—mirrored Mangal’s statement in a recent conversation about why he closed his cafe doors after eight years in business: “Staff turnover and poaching…and of course the ubiquitous stress of owning a restaurant. You go to all this trouble training people, then they leave to go somewhere down the street,” Bob explains.
Talk to any chef, staff poaching is a tale as old as time—but it’s gotten out of control. Robots would definitely eliminate the stress of finding reliable staff.
Blair adds in a hopeful sentiment: “…But there’s a cool thing going on in every city, where a small knit group of chefs get together and help each other out. We’re not just focused on securing staff, but also helping staff move on, succeed, and learn new skills at different restaurants. This is the great spirit of the business.”
Increased Wage demands
The increasing hourly wage (and diners unwilling to spend more money) is another curve ball for the fiscal management of restaurant staffing. Just since 2010, the average annual take-away has increased by about 15%, as the world has watched McDonald’s fight the $15 per hour wage demand.
In a 3/26/2019 press release, McDonald's announced they will no longer lobby against raising workers’ pay. “Going forward, McDonald's Corporation will not use our resources, including lobbyists or staff, to oppose minimum wage increases at the federal, state or local levels," wrote Genna Gent, vice president of US government relations for McDonald’s. “Nor will we participate in the association advocacy efforts designed expressly to defeat wage increases.” Gent added that McDonald's thinks wage increases should be “phased in”.
Who will this impact?
Just in 2016 alone, over 5,122,600 Americans were employed by restaurants. I spoke with April Harrington*, COO of Growing Home, a non-profit urban-farm organization in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood that provides job training to people with employment barriers and access to USDA-certified organic produce to hear her take on the potential economic crisis.
*Before Harrington’s tenure at Growing Home, she herself worked as a server at restaurant, making this topic hit even closer to home.
“When it comes to robots replacing humans in food service, we’re not only talking about the loss of jobs here, but we’re also losing an important human component in our relationship with our food,” Harrington remarks. “Americans have realized that consuming food in a way that is disconnected from the environment, animals, and people that make that food possible is not benefitting any of us. Robotizing our food preparation seems like a step backwards in our efforts to re-humanize our food experience.”
Harrington went on to explain that the food industry is timeless in a way few industries are. “People will always need to eat, and they will always want to enjoy it. Working with food has been a right of passage, a stepping stone, and a meaningful career for so many Americans, but especially for young adults, immigrants, and low-income workers. When those jobs start to disappear, they will be impacted the most.”
Job Opportunities for the Handicapped and Disabled
Restaurants not only provide work opportunity to young adults, immigrants, and low-income works—but also the handicapped and disabled.
Such is the story of Matthew McCormick. Matt was in a terrible car crash several years ago. The crash was so intense, that his best friend whom was driving, died instantly. Matthew’s 6’4” body was left with only a scratch on his knee, but a catastrophic brain injury. Doctors that night told him there was a 9/10 chance he wouldn’t make it past surgery. But he fought and survived against all odds, and is still surviving till this day.
Full of energy, quick to crack a joke, quote a Snoop Dogg song, or show you a scar from one of his many surgeries. Yet, Matt is unable to work an intensive job. So he does light food prep at Certified Burgers & Beverage, a local burger joint in St. Simon’s Island, Georgia. Husband and wife owners, David and Ryanne Carrier, reminisce how they hired Matthew at their restaurant.
“Matt came in one day with his dad for an interview. He was great—we hired him on the spot,” David Carrier says.
“When we told him he can start next week Matt said: Can I start today?”
“I was eager to get back to work. To have something to do, to feel normal again!” Matt chimes in, then takes a swig of his neon-colored Mountain Dew.
“Matt’s a new addition to our staff and everyone loves his energy. We’re lucky to have him and glad we were able to give him an opportunity,” says David.
Restaurant robots will clearly have an impact on our workforce, now what about the big picture for food production?
Food Futurists: Pioneers and Open minds
Chef Henry Hill is a real black sheep in the food scene. Not only has he ran numerous Michelin-starred kitchens, such as Eleven Madison Park and Dusek’s, he’s also launched a retail beverage brand and helped develop hundreds of successful retail food products. Chef Hill is crazy credentialed and connected, yet cool and down-to-earth. (He insists I call him Henry and has a Morton Salt Girl tattoo…I mean how awesome, right?!)
With eyes towards the future, Henry is a strong believer in rapid prototyping and regarded as a food tech trailblazer and one of the best and fastest culinary developers in the industry. So what does Henry have to say about robots in restaurants?
“There's no turning back the clock, customizable and made to order QSRs are coming. And robotics cooking? It’s nothing more then co-manufacturing finding its face as a consumer-facing brand, where all are welcome to run their own formulations. Burger with extra ketchup, no lettuce, and cheddar cheese, no problem,” Henry says.
When asked where the jobs will go, Henry responds: “Robotics is nothing more than the second industrial revolution. We asked the same question then—what will everyone do with automation and factories? We'll have so much free time! The fact still remains that humanity is a restless species…and here we are over one hundred years after the first industrial revolution and busier today then we’ve ever been!”
Next I reached out to Dr. Alex Woo, founder and CEO of W2O Food Innovation—a consultancy specializing in creating better food with a niche expertise in neuroscience and natural ingredients. With an office in Silicon Valley area, Dr. Woo is adjacent to the new Creator restaurant.
“Oh yeah, Creator is a hot new burger concept restaurant in the trendy SoMa district in San Francisco,” Dr. Woo remarks.
Dr. Woo has been a pioneer of modern food sensory-engineering decades before “innovation” became a buzzword. He knows which inventions are unique, and which are me-too’s. “Novel plus good food for Creator for now…robot plus personal experience for McDonald's or Starbucks in the near future?…Who knows.”
Dr. Woo went on to explain that as with all food concept launches, even when truly “novel”: quite simply, if the food isn’t good—it isn’t going to succeed.
Chef Henry Hill and Dr. Woo make some great points. Although restaurant robots will have a negative impact on our workforce, there are valid pros with contemporary societal growth robotics technology could bring.
But cutting to the chase…is this a good thing or a bad thing? In an attempt to get my head on straight and stop my “homina-homina” jaw from dropping, I turned to tradition. This is the way we’ve always done things is not a good reason for why one does something, but moving ahead rapidly often means abandoning something. And I wanted to understand what that “something” might be.
Traditionalism: PROTECTING VALUES AND DISCERNING CONSEQUENCES
As I brainstormed what group I can study that holds on to tradition with white knuckles, two words popped in my head.
Contrary to popular belief, the Amish don’t believe technology is evil. In fact, they make use of many modern technologies such as landline telephones, electric lights, batteries, and certain farm equipment. What concerns the Amish is that when unchecked or abusively used, technology can negatively affect the things they value, protect, and preserve.
I remember seeing an Amish person for the first time. I was a little kid at a Michigan state park. Look mom—just like Oregon Trails! But as I’ve matured, I do not look at the obvious physical object for what it is, in this case the horse-and-buggy, but instead what things represent under the surface.
The Amish don’t drive horse-and-buggy because they think it’s a sick ride or an enjoyable rickety experience. The Amish drive horse-and-buggy, because they believe that eventually the ability to travel quickly for longer distances with a car, would cause them to move further apart from each other—separating families and destroying their community. Automotive-avoidance represents that the Amish cherish their strong community and family values more than the convenience-benefit of a car.
Dallin Crump explains in his article about the Amish technology belief system, “When it comes to technology, the Amish seek to be its master rather than allow it to master them. They are selective about the things they allow into their lives and use those things intentionally to help them live in harmony with their values.”
So what values might we be leaving behind by accepting this A.I. technology? I can’t help but circle back to homemade food and the phenomenon of “made with love”. But perhaps that is just me over-romanticizing my relationship with food. Nonetheless, I am not alone with this sentiment, as big time culinary influencers, such as Thomas Keller, are powerful peddlers of this message too.
All in all, the Amish are a mindful, contemplative people who make careful decisions about futurism. However, the realist in me finds them much too far on one end of the spectrum. Fight against the current of social progress too long, and you’ll either drown or lose your school of fish.
moderate: BALANCE AND WEIGHING PROS AND CONS
Food futurists are so ahead of the times that they have become less rooted with the present. The Amish are so stuck in the past that they have become ostracized in their own echo-chamber.
I wanted to hear a moderate perspective. So, I searched for someone in food production who was a balance of old-school and techy, a happy medium.
That’s when I found Fabio Santuccio, owner and operator of a 400-year old farm by day and freelance website developer by night—an agribusiness thought-leader, farmer, philosopher, historian, and digital creator of Eloro District, a Sicilian tourism website and smartphone app.
I went to Farmer Fabio’s ancient wild-orchard in Noto, Sicily to live with him and his fiance for a few weeks. Besides receiving minor renovations in the 1970’s, this farm was old.
I threw clinical observation and interviews out the window for this ethnography. Organic conversations unraveled over eggplant arrostito, house-made olive oil, al dente spaghetti with anchovies, marinated octopus, and bottle after bottle of d’Avola wine. Night-cap chats were my favorite—and always accompanied with bitter-sweet Amaro, laughter and let me be real with you jibber jabber.
Over the three weeks I was there, Farmer Fabio consistently demonstrated that he holds tradition near and dear, but celebrates new technology. He follows a thoughtful discernment process when determining whether to accept or ignore new technologies. It reminded me of the thoughtfulness of the Amish, but paired with realism.
The Farmer Fabio Technology Discernment Process
While keeping an open mind, instead of only thinking of conveniences technology may bring work and/or life, only leverage technology after doing careful critical thinking and thorough ascertaining of its impact on the environment and consequences for future generations.
“If it’s bad for the earth and there is no real need, I won’t use it. A couple years ago, I installed a solar panel when I learned of its benefits and its ability to work harmoniously with nature, not against it. And just last week I bought a dishwasher when I learned it actually saves water. Yes, neither of those modern things were around when this farm was built, but that’s okay, not all technology is bad. I also have a Macbook computer and a nice espresso machine,” Farmer Fabio explains with a laugh as he sharpens his axe.
“What are your thoughts on technology…applied to food?” I inquire in practiced Italian.
“Ah, Theresa, this is a difficult question,” he takes a long sigh. “But I will tell you what I think.”
“I think mostly we are trying to bring good advancements to humanity. Humans have adapted very quickly with tech in communication and information. From floppy disks to CDs to cloud storage. From library research to Google. We sprinted from rotary phone to cord-less landline to smartphones.” He holds out his iPhone and sarcastically marvels it as if he’s Vanna White.
“This is all good, we have adapted nicely! But…”
Fabio takes a drag of his cigarette, exhales, then scans his backyard vista as if seeing it for the first time. The cacti, yellow flowers, twisted olive trees, green meadows, orange citrus, and buzzing bees.
“These things do not fuel our body and soul like food. I understand that we apply tech to food, because why not?” he laughs. “We see technology does good for communication and information advancement, we think it will do the same for food!”
Then Fabio’s laughter stops with a halt and he gives a look—eyes heavy and serious.
“But…I think we are moving too fast.”
“Product is a direct result of process, it cannot be separated. We cannot pretend like applying tech to food is identical to applying tech to a cell phone. We should continue to apply tech to food, of course. But we gotta slow down and do more thoughtful discernment,” he throws his two hands out and makes a stop-sign gesture.
Farmer Fabio believes so strongly in the need to slow down food technology—and to be more mindful when determining what remains from traditional food production and what goes—that he has set aside his history and philosophy degrees from the University of Catania, and assumed the painstaking and antithesis-of-glamorous role of a farmer, to maintain and preserve the land and bygone techniques, so it may serve as a farm conservation model in a project called, ZisolHouse.
The message Farmer Fabio pushed, was that we must not simply throw the baby out with the bathwater. A safe and nutritious food future is not Slow Food Movement vs. food tech, rather a Slow-Down Food Movement. A balance of tradition and thoughtful futurism.
What Do the masses have to say?
All this high-level research is a moot point if the zeitgeist of “Power to the People” welcomes this new food robotics technology with open-arms. In an effort to better understand where we stood as a nation, I conducted the most advanced, reliable form of modern consumer research:
I texted my brother and read YouTube comments.
My brother Johnny is the one who always wanted that magic pizza oven. He’s also the most regular ’Merican guy I know: a proud Chicago Fire Fighter, sports fan, and meat & potatoes lover. I showed him the video of the magic burger robot. I expected an all caps response with hand-clapping emojis and perhaps a disco-ball accompanied by a grand, sophisticated statement such as: GTFO AMAZING SO COOL.
But that’s not what happened.
my text conversation with johnny
Much to my surprise, Johnny was not impressed. He immediately saw the technology for what it represented long-term, and not for what it was. Johnny applied his worldview and values instantaneously and made a selfless judgement call, kind of like the Farmer Fabio Technology Discernment Process.
Next, I scanned through #nofilter YouTube comments underneath the burger robot video. Reading YouTube comments is like the new American pastime—always wonderfully entertaining, never disappointing. After a few minutes of perusing, I found that viewers were excited by this fun burger technology:
But once again, much to my surprise, as I continued to scroll, I actually saw more negative comments than positive ones. This showed that there were more viewers who were genuinely concerned by this technology than enthused:
The future of food production is here. now what?
We’ve all seen this coming. The Jetsons, Twilight Zone, Jimmy Neutron, the movie WALL-E—and the likes. Isolated for what it is, this restaurant robot technology is a cool, fun, innovative invention.
However, what this restaurant robot represents scratches at the very fabric of our human condition. This innovation eliminates jobs and the etheric phenomenon that Grandma Ruth referred to as “made with love”. It threatens community and culture values while removing us from the process, literally and figuratively. This real machine cannot be looked in a vacuum, because the real world is not a vacuum; it is a complicated inter-woven system, a system where humans matter and nourishment is more than just body satiation. Ultimately, food advancements are a good thing, but we must slow down and be more discerning when we apply tech to food production.
Food is a fundamental part of all of our lives. It doesn’t require a food science or culinary degree to weigh in on the topic of restaurant robots. As you decide how you feel about restaurant robots removing humans in the kitchen, maybe you’ll look forward to enjoying the fun experience and savory six dollar-burger meat crumbling in your mouth for what it is, or perhaps you’ll think of the words of Farmer Fabio. Think as you please, but in all cases think.