The rise of restaurant robots is upon us.
Major fast-food chains are employing robots to flip burgers, brew espressos and greet customers – and it is a fraction of the cost compared to paying human workers.
White Castle is testing the Flippy robot at 100 locations and Chipotle uses a one-armed robot to make tortilla chips at 73 sites – both cost $3,000 a month – and Starbucks has $18,000 AI-powered espresso machines in at least 1,200 locations.
As food costs increase and a extreme labor deficit grips the US, paying monthly rentals for machines has become a worthwhile option.
The National Restaurant Association recently disclosed that four in five operators are understaffed and have been since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020.
However, experts are not yet sold and convinced it will be a few years before robots are substituted in place of human workers.
David Henkes, a principal at Technomic, a restaurant research firm, told CNBC: ‘I think there’s a lot of experimentation that is going to lead us somewhere at some point, but we’re still a very labor-intensive, labor-driven industry.’
Miso Robotics demonstrates Flippy at White Castle.
The labor shortages have compelled restaurant owners to offer higher wages to entice more staff, which, mixed with increasing food costs, is causing establishments to run their banks dry to stay afloat.
But this is where automation comes to the rescue.
Starbucks has rolled out more than $21 million worth of AI-powered espresso makers that runs on the company’s Deep Brew software.
And while it does not brew cups of coffee, it can mix brews exactly and does so quicker than a human barista.
Similar software has also been joined to the coffee maker’s drive-thru lanes, which greet customers and take their orders – downsizing the number of staff required in a location.
Job shortages started because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as many restaurants were forced to close due to harsh lockdown orders, and the industry cannot seem to rebound back.
A study by the National Bureau of Economics found that COVID-19 reduced the US workforce by hundreds of thousands.