More Restaurant Robots?

The hospitality industry is one of the fields that has seemed ripe for automation for a long time…but hasn’t actually made much progress in that direction until recently. For years, robot pizza makers and robot bartenders were occasionally in the headlines. They tickled people’s fancy and had novelty value, but they didn’t actually show up in local restaurants.

The average restaurant makes just 3-5% profit after labor and overhead are considered. Wages are historically low and often depend on tips. The up-front cost of a robot just didn’t make sense.

The pandemic changed that. No-touch service and labor shortages created a need for change and leasing options reduced the initial outlay. Food service robots improved, too. Now, according to Hospitality Technology, 75% of restaurants in the U.S. use some automation.

Which jobs are on the chopping block?

While we are intrigued by reports of robotic fry cooks, robotic guacamole makers, and most recently automatic salad dispensers with conveyer belts, we’re not surprised that administration is the top area for automation.

While 58% of independent restaurants think they could probably replace their managers with robots, most of the automation they actually use is software, not robots. Tasks like inventory management, food safety monitoring, and analytics are most likely to be automated.

Chefs’ jobs are the safest, while baristas, dishwashers, drive-through servers, and cashiers seem relatively replaceable to respondents to a Capterra survey. Only 21% of restaurants have automated food preparation.

Experts recommend automating boring jobs and diverting humans to food prep and delivery tasks that directly affect the customers’ experiences.


Some in the industry say that a restaurant can expect to cut labor costs by one third with food service automation. ZDNet gives the example of one restaurateur who calculates that his robot costs him just $4 a day. Robots used in the hospitality industry often cost less than humans when you factor in the ability to work constantly without breaks or complaints.

However, there are some emotional obstacles. On the one hand, people don’t necessarily want to be served by robots rather than human beings. 17% of women in one survey said they wouldn’t eat in a restaurant that had robot servers.

Makers try to get past this by making food service robots cute. But that brings up the other hand. When human workers see their robot coworkers as cute, they don’t want them to work as hard. Plenty of research finds that people get fond of human or animal-shaped robots. There are stories of workers dressing robots up in hats or other gear, naming robots, and refusing replacements because they’ve come to love their machines. Naturally, they want those machines to get to take breaks.

Add in the error level that’s normal with robot waiters and many end up with a human following them around helping them. The human still has to be paid — and to get breaks, too — so there’s much less saving going on.

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