Fast Food Robots — for Real this Time?

Back in the 20th century, Taco Bell had a robot that made tacos…but not very successfully. The machine was able to make 900 tacos an hour, churning out a taco every ten seconds.

The tacos weren’t up to snuff.

Pizza-making robots debuted in 2016. Flippy has been flipping burgers since 2018, and now next-gen Flippy versions are frying wings and French fries, too. Robots have been doing the cooking in at least a few restaurants for years. They haven’t hit the mainstream before now, and they haven’t replaced human workers.

But things have changed. As Boss Magazine puts it, “fast food establishments are facing an existential threat.” They’re facing the same labor shortages seen in other industries, but the jobs are dull, dirty, and dangerous (at least potentially, with hot oil and sharp blades involved), and the profit margins aren’t high enough for franchisees to have much flexibility with wages.

As inflation hits their raw ingredients, it’s getting hard for fast food places to make ends meet.

Automation to the rescue

With fast food workers demanding $15.00 an hour — and fewer people even being willing to take on those jobs even at that wage — automation looks more appealing to restaurant owners than it used to.

5 million Americans work in the fast food industry, so widespread automation will be disruptive…but maybe that’s a good thing.

The average fast food worker is 24 years old and starts at $11,000 a year, working their way up to an average of $24,000 a year. It’s not a desirable job by most standards. Fewer, better paid human workers overseeing robots and automated systems might be a real step up for people who choose to stay int he hospitality industry.

Negative views of robots taking over jobs don’t always consider the jobs automation has already done away with. Who among us would really want to operate a manual plow or a telephone switchboard?

Policies that help see the displaced workers through that disruption may be more valuable than policies that discourage it.

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