Horn & Hardart gave us a vision of what it means to have a functional vending machine with practical utility. The 1950s saw the birth of the first idealized vending machine, a huge construction made of metal and glass that served thousands of city dwellers day and night. No waiters, just steaming plates and a glass door that opens with a coin.
The ancestors of the first semi-automatic food and drink serving machines are still in use today, although instead of restaurants and bars we see them in public spaces, perhaps small shops.
The first vending machine is said to have been in Berlin in 1895, created by a company named Quisiana. The machine served sandwiches, wine and coffee and was considered a big hit. A real old fashioned vending machine.
Japan is another country that was an early adopter of restaurant automation and still does with its conveyor belt sushi lines that deliver small plates of food to seated customers. Even international sushi restaurants have adapted this model, such as YoSushi.
The question is, what is the relationship between current staffing issues in restaurants and commercially available automation technology? This is what we discuss in this article.
Present staffing issues in restaurants
Staffing issues can come in many forms. With the social disruptions of COVID-19, many restaurants are still struggling to get back to what they might call “normal.”
Still, it’s worth discussing the general appeal of restaurant jobs in the first place. School children are far from being encouraged to work in the catering sector. Waiting and bartending are not on the list of encouraged careers, nor are they considered challenging enough for the mainstream education sector.
As a result, most students opt for higher education and target different vocations, leaving bar and restaurant jobs for the casual part-time worker. The employee turnover rate is one of the highest in the restaurant industry, although the best departments are distinguished by excellent retention rates.
Nevertheless, staff reliability and motivation is an issue in most restaurant chains. Even the most successful restaurants with the highest staff retention rates have suffered during the pandemic when they had to send their employees on indefinite leave. Inconsistency has become a constant, something that neither the employer nor the worker in need of regular pay can afford.
Control machines only: advantages and disadvantages
Perhaps the most common places to spot order-oriented automats are fast food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King and others. These machines allow customers to order food without speaking to anyone until collection time.
The machine features a full menu with the ability to partially customize what customers order. Card payments are usually set by default, but in most cases customers can still choose to pay cash at checkout.
What are the pitfalls of order-only machines?
The first thing to address is that the purpose of contactless ordering is defeated as soon as the customer chooses cash payment.
Going further, while personalization of orders has been introduced to many fast food chains through ordering machines, restaurants with a more customer-centric approach may find this limited.
This problem comes under the commands of your mobile via a QR-scanned menu. In a mainstream restaurant, it’s considered simple to ask for what you want, with all the accompanying notes on what you want to remove or add that isn’t ‘standard’ on the menu.
Having to create a personalized order through an ordering app or ordering machine could lead to a deterioration of customer-restaurant relationships, primarily establishments that rely on personalized service and good quality food to bond with visitors.
Again, fast food chains are not threatened by this, since the relationship is between the brand and the customer.
Integration of dispensary automats: advantages and disadvantages
It’s unlikely we’ll see any restaurants integrating vending machines. We mostly associate them with gas stations and pop-up stores on a busy shopping street.
The only sub-sector that is currently geared towards the sale of main meals is that of salad and light meal lovers. If establishments decide to enter the market easily, we could see an increase in modernized dispensary vending machines that target particular dietary preferences, such as vegan, keto, or other specialty diets.
There is a key problem with dispensary machines. If something is wrong and the customer is not satisfied, there is no way to fix the problem. Unless there is someone to remedy the situation working at the facility at the issue, but that defeats the purpose of a dispensary machine.
Robots-Restaurants and Robots Waiters: Advantages and Disadvantages
If you want to see the action of robots in restaurants, watch Hong Kong. Not only do these joints have robotic wait staff, but actual chef robots.
Now the benefits are simple. Running a robot is probably cheaper than employing a full-time employee, or at least it will be. Moreover, once the robot has completed its tasks for the day, it can continue its preparatory tasks at night. He doesn’t need to sleep.
The main concerns around robot chefs and waiters are the quality of service and maintenance. A robot is incapable of matching human creativity, so fine dining restaurants are irrelevant for robotics companies as potential customers.
Restaurant chains with canned ingredients for quick preparation, such as Subway, are among the establishments most likely to invest in robot chefs and servers for an all-in-one fast food production line.
Customer interaction is important when taking the time to eat a meal and treat it as an experience. Fast food restaurants hardly belong in this framework, so a robot with a few polite gestures may suffice for the narrow criteria of interactivity.
Advances in technology make a return to the era of the automaton not just a possibility, but a probability. The question is no longer “if” but “when” and “how”.