walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Restaurant automation

For several months now, activists pushing for a $15 minimum wage (honestly, not because they were seriously expecting to get it, but that's a whole other story) have been taken sufficiently seriously in various corners to add a little extra oomph to restaurant automation. I thought now might be a good time to see what the options are and speculate about which ones might take off.

Lara Rosenbaum put together a really impressive summary of what is out there to help automate a restaurant:


By now, most restaurants have an order system which servers enter orders into, generating a ticket in the kitchen and which will ultimately generate a bill for the customer. These are often, but not always, integrated with the POS system (the part where your payment happens). Here's how I think of this: in the 1990s, bookstore chains had a computer where they could look up what books they could order from their supplier, whether that was Baker & Taylor, Ingram, wtf. The next step was for that electronic catalog of available titles to be presented directly to the customer, a la Amazon, BN.com, etc. Similarly, if you think about what happens at McDonald's and Wendy's and so forth, you could imagine the customer putting the order in themselves, if they had any idea how to navigate that screen of buttons.

Disney's quick serve restaurants in the resorts have touch screens where you place your order. That generates a ticket that you hand to the cashier with your salad/dessert/bakery/beverage selection to pay -- and a ticket in the kitchen as well. The cashier gives you a pager and the kitchen tells you when to pick up your meal. This kind of stuff is real and it does exist, altho it shifts/reduces human labor rather than eliminating it entirely.

Chili's has successfully tested Ziosk, a tablet based table ordering system and intends to roll it out widely. Applebee's has done something similar with E La Carte. They seem to think that this can increase orders of beverages, desserts and appetizers, and also increase tip size. This makes sense to me: the wait for the first visit from the server, and then for a return, tends to compress ordering and reduce the amount ordered. They also believe that it turns the tables a little more quickly, again because the customer does not have to wait for the server to show up with the bill, and then return with change/after processing the card (altho sometimes these two stages are compressed already). Ziosk and E La Carte also have games which generate a small amount of money as well.

Surprisingly, many left-of-center commentators on the interaction of minimum wage and restaurants are not focusing on this aspect of restaurant automation, but rather evoking the automats of yore -- and the vending machines of Japan. Which is super weird, because both of those systems are incredibly high labor, but you know, maybe they know something I don't.

I think a better way to think of table top ordering systems at chain casual dining restaurants is two-fold: it evokes the table top jukebox that is so persistently popular that Johnny Rockets continues to include it in its restaurants and transitions the menu from paper to electronic form. While I feel confident that these tablet systems will reduce the amount of labor needed to serve each table, I do not believe that it will reduce the amount of labor in the chain casual dining sector overall. In fact, I suspect the opposite. Jevons paradox may well apply, at least for a while (presumably there is some upper limit on the amount of demand for chain casual dining).

If I am right, then increasing the minimum wage would be the best possible thing we could do for both the restaurant industry AND workers in that industry. Automation would make labor cost a smaller fraction of price AND more people could afford to eat out more often. Win/win all around.

I'm still poking around the fast food part of the industry; that's less clear.

(ETA: http://www.neontommy.com/news/2014/01/burger-robots-and-burrito-vending-machines-shake-fast-food
Robot made burgers from Momentum Machines and a vending machines that makes burritos.)

ETA: I'm ignoring the health implications at the moment. Obvs, we need to continue to push on the Veggies are Trendy trend, and work on portion size, sodium content, blah, blah, bleeping, blah. Tablet systems should make providing comprehensive nutrition and allergen content much easier.
Tags: our future economy today
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