Restaurant Automation: Are We Close to the Tipping Point?

When I was a kid, my parents used to take me to a restaurant that brought your food via a train that ran on a track right in front of you. Little did I know it then, that this was likely my first encounter with automation in a foodservice application.

The restaurant used the train to bring the food to me, mostly out of entertainment, but I am sure that someone in the back figured out that this was saving them labor in some way.

My next encounter with restaurant automation came in the early 90s when I ran the Industrial Engineering department at Burger King. I was part of a team responsible to manage several automation projects, including:

  • Automated broiler patty and bun feeder
  • Automated fryer (for French fries and other items)
  • Customer operated order terminal
  • Video drive-thru system – I actually got a patent for this one (patent #5,168,354).

As part of my selling proposition to the Burger King executive team, I used a video from a fully automated fast food restaurant that AMF had built in the early 1960s.

Back then, Burger King was clearly the industry leader in the area of automation and we readily applied the principles of Industrial Engineering to our designs and more. Then a new executive team came in, as was typical at Burger King, and stopped all automation projects. Nobody really knows if any of these projects would have reached the level of commercialization, but they definitely provided significant operational and customer benefits during the testing. The customer-operated terminals and video drive-thru even reached field testing. In the case of the video drive-thru, we even advertised the system as a competitive advantage with very positive results, providing a payback via the sales bump it would generate.

The issue of rising labor costs back then rings very similar to what foodservice operators deal with today. The only notable difference between then and now is the magnitude of the minimum wage increase under consideration at the moment and how quickly news of possible movements in this area hit the press (almost instantaneously), fueling an even greater concern.

The one good thing about the inevitable minimum wage increase is that it provides fertile ground for the development of equipment solutions and even automation in restaurants. Perhaps the restaurant industry is reaching the tipping point for real automation, as we did at Burger King in the early '90s and as AMF did in the early '60s.

Some are already hedging this bet and have developed several automated contraptions. Here are three that I have come across recently.

So how do can a foodservice operation begin the automation process?

Begin by objectively quantifying the potential impact such a step will have in the areas of service, labor and product quality, among others. And also attempt to quantify the payback the automated applications will provide. This is where applying the principles of Industrial Engineering can help tremendously, by providing the ability to objectively quantify the true impact that will fuel the payback.

An important fact to consider when making inferences about the labor impact is to understand that work content reductions do not always translate into labor savings. The only way to reach true labor savings that fuel the payback of technology and equipment is to remove FTE’s (full-time equivalents) from the schedule. All else is just noise.

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