The idea that foodservice lags behind other industries when it comes to adopting new technologies is nothing new. But the fact remains that automation and robotics will continue to become a bigger part of providing effective and efficient foodservice operations. That point was never clearer to me than after having spent a few days walking the National Restaurant Association’s 2022 show in Chicago.
It’s important to point out that when discussing foodservice-related robotics, we’re not referring to robots as in the T-800 terminator. Although I did notice some robots at the NRA show that did resemble other well-known cleaning robots from PIXAR.
The most common example of robotics on display at this year’s show were the serving robots. These units can navigate through dining room obstacles and more to bring food to guests’ tables and, in some instances, return soiled wares to the dish room. (Perhaps adding a face to some of these robots might warm them up.) The neat thing about robots in general, though, is the flexibility in the application of the technology.
Some years ago, a robot, not unlike what was on display in Chicago, was introduced to help in food delivery. While functional, this robot was not well accepted. At the time, consumers were not yet ready to receive their food via robots. Fast forward to 2022, consumers are much more welcoming to the presence of technology like robots in their foodservice experience. Perhaps that’s because over the past three years the industry has adopted technology at rate faster than anyone could have previously imagined. From food kiosks to QR codes, and now the return of the serving robot, technology has become ubiquitous in today’s foodservice experience.
Ironically, the one area that moved slower than others when it comes to implementing technology was food delivery. Until now, that is. Consumers seem much more open to the idea of a serving robot taking their dirty plates away from the table and using this technology can alleviate some of the labor pressures operators continue to experience by eliminating at least one task from the staff to do list.
I worked with a buffet concept which seeks to implement this very technology. Our research shows using robots that can take dirty items to the kitchen had the ability to reduce daily labor needs by the equivalent of two full-time employees on a typical day and as many as three FTEs on very busy days. The same could be applicable to concepts which have big front-of-house staffs that must make long treks to the dish room drop-off area.
If you work in the back of the house, do not feel neglected. Robotics have made their way into this space as well. From fully automated pizza making machines to semi-automated grilling and frying there’s plenty on the horizon for back-of-the-house robotics applications. In fact, robotic pizza making is an idea that’s been around for a while, starting with automated sauce dispensers and spreaders before moving on to cheese dispensers. Now some manufacturers can put all of that together into one complete solution. Semi-automated grilling and frying is not new, either. These technologies are just becoming more accepted. Artificial intelligence, and its application restaurant, wide is also becoming more accepted.
Add this newfound acceptance to robotics with the labor shortages found across the foodservice industry, it is no surprise the industry seems on the precipice of some big changes. The robotic evolution to continue, not only from the equipment supplier side, but also from the consumer side. As consumers continue to yearn for convenience in foodservice, their thought process continues to evolve allowing for greater acceptance of robotics as part of the foodservice experience.
If the last few years have taught us anything when it comes to consumer habits, they are ever-changing, possibly towards accepting artificially intelligent robotics … maybe an “Arnold T-800” wouldn’t be a bad thing.