At the 2018 National Restaurant Association SuperSession: The Future of Restaurants, restauranteurs were urged to embrace technology or get left behind. Again, and again, futurist Daniel Burrus warned the audience to find a way to embrace technology or your competition will.
While interviewing Bear Robotics CEO, John Ha, Burrus confessed to the audience that he could use a little water before continuing and was soon joined on stage by Penny, Bear Robotics’ robot who runs food from the kitchen, so co-workers can focus on the customer.
This little demonstration seemed to reveal the critical tension point in the industry today. As a chef with too much time on his hands might do, I’ll peel this onion back a bit:
- While there’s a lot to love about a growing U.S. economy, restauranteurs who are typically bedeviled by an intractable staffing issue, now find it more difficult than ever. Multi-decade category veteran and CEO of Houlihan’s – Mike Archer – said with unemployment at 3.9%, “today is the most difficult staffing environment in my career.” With the government just announcing the lowest birthrate ever recorded in the U.S. while battening down the hatches on immigration, it’s only natural that robots like Penny or Flippy, a burger flipping robotic arm from Cali Group, arise.
- Would restauranteurs want to dramatically reduce their biggest headache – staffing – by embracing technology like Penny? Who are we kidding-YES! But the technology innovators are always careful to serve up their solutions as enablers – not replacers – to humans. After all, the restaurant industry is the second largest private sector employer in the U.S.. Even more so, as former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice said in her keynote address to the show: “Not everybody has to go to college. Everyone has to have a job.” A shout-out here to McDonald’s staffing (and brand-building) campaign punctuated by the tag line: “Committed to being America’s best first job.” And backing it up with the promise of college tuition assistance, world-class training, free English language classes and free high school completion courses.
- But as delightful a piece of eye candy that robot Penny was on stage, when you think about it, would Penny really help a server, a restauranteur or a customer? Penny holds the equivalent of a dinner plate. How does Penny serve a table of four? Make Penny’s tray larger? How does Penny get through the restaurant at table height? Does the customer really want to spend more time with the server while Penny is doing the running? Penny is great buzz for the show. But I seriously doubt that restauranteurs are lining up to buy.
- While I’m a skeptic when it comes to robot servers, I generally agree with futurist’s Burrus’ call to arming with technology. The trend toward delivery from restaurants or commissaries is trending way up and will only accelerate with the not-too-distant arrival of autonomous vehicles. Algorithms that can predict traffic count based on weather data and social chatter can help stretch limited staffing to manage labor and food more efficiently. And paying from my phone when I’m ready to leave – no disappearing server – with facial recognition software will make any restaurant experience better for the customer (and restauranteur).
Gee, you think about these autonomous vehicles bringing any food we desire right to our homes (maybe this is where Penny comes in, so we don’t have to get out of our Lazy-Boys to go to the door) and suddenly you think maybe Wall-E isn’t so far off.
Thank goodness for the other big trend at the show – plant based foods. With 43,000 foodservice buyers descending on the show, the most crowded booths by far were those of Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat. They were eight-deep waiting for the product to come off the grills and Restaurant Business claimed plant-forward products stole the show.
- Embrace the right technology for your business
- Go the extra mile for staff
- Lean into your veggies