Restaurants Turn to Robots Amid Labor Shortage | May 2022
Robots are becoming increasingly useful in the transformation process. These “steel-collar” workers are used in numerous applications by companies around the world. Many assembly operations—cars, electronics, metal products, plastics, chemicals, and numerous other products—depend on industrial robots. Now, robots can be found in the kitchens of fast food and casual dining restaurants such as Jack in the Box, Panera, Denny’s, and Chili’s.
Jack in the Box Partners with Miso Robotics
Jack in the Box, a fast-food burger restaurant, will pilot test Miso Robotics’ robot called Sippy and Flippy 2 to automate its fry and beverage stations. Flippy and Sippy use artificial intelligence, sensors, cameras, and robotic arms to accomplish tasks and can identify foods and monitor cooking times. The robots have a fixed monthly cost that includes maintenance. The companies are in talks about further integrating. Miso has also worked with Panera.
Relying on robots can be appealing to restaurant operators as it allows them to offset wage increases and inflation while overcoming the labor shortage. Additionally, with the accuracy and consistency of Flippy, restaurants can improve cooking accuracy and potentially reduce food-borne illnesses from improperly cooked food. Robots can result in labor savings as fewer employees are needed. Companies pay employees a wage or salary in addition to other perks such as free meals, discounts, health care, and more.
Job elimination, however, is a major concern for workers. While robots and other technologies will likely replace many human workers, restaurants have struggled with high turnover rates and retention issues. In what has been dubbed the Great Resignation or the Big Quit, many people have voluntarily left their jobs since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are more job openings than there are individuals seeking employment.
While in many ways, robots are more reliable since they don’t call in sick or request raises, they do break down and require maintenance. Restaurants will need to develop close relationships with their robot company for speedy service, including on-site repair and remote fixes. Automation will undoubtedly eliminate many jobs, but it will also lead to demand for automation engineers, IT specialists, and workers who are tech-savvy and able to interface with robots.
According to Jack in the Box, Sippy and Flippy 2 will allow restaurant employees to spend less time at the fryer and drink stations and more time interacting with customers. Labor has been a major challenge for the company. Additionally, the Flippy 2 robot has been shown to increase throughput by 30 percent while the Sippy robot is faster and more accurate at pouring drinks since its automated workflow is integrated with the restaurant’s point-of-sale system.
Chili’s Partners with Bear Robotics
After a successful test in ten of its restaurants, Chili’s, a casual dining Tex-Mex bar and grill, has expanded its partnership with Bear Robotics. Now, more than 60 restaurants will feature Rita the Robot which can escort guests to their tables, deliver food, tell guests to join My Chili’s Rewards, and sing a birthday song to guests.
The restaurant company says it likes the technology because it allows the host to stay at the stand at the front of the restaurant, seating guests more efficiently, and it allows waiters to spend more time chatting with guests at tables. According to an internal survey, 84 percent of Chili’s team members are excited about the robot, and 82 percent of guests felt their dining experience was better because of Rita. Bear Robotics has also worked with clients such as Denny’s.
Whether or not guests and employees embrace robots or not, it is clear that there are plenty of front-of-house and back-of-house opportunities for automation and robotic tools in the restaurant industry. In addition to Miso Robotics and Bear Robotics, other major robotics companies include Peanut Robotics, Knightscope, SoftBank Robotics, and Makr Shakr.
In the Classroom
This article can be used to discuss technology and robotics (Chapter 8: Managing Operations and Supply Chains).
What are the pros and cons and using robots rather than human workers?
What factors do you think led to the Great Resignation?
In your opinion, are robots a threat to the future of work? Why or why not?
This article was developed with the support of Kelsey Reddick for and under the direction of O.C. Ferrell, Linda Ferrell, and Geoff Hirt.
Aneurin Canham-Clyne, "Jack in the Box Will Test Miso Beverage and Fry Cook Robots," Restaurant Dive, April 26, 2022, https://www.restaurantdive.com/news/jack-in-the-box-Miso-test-robots-to-combat-labor-shortage/622675/
Janet Morrissey, "Desperate for Workers, Restaurants Turn to Robots," The New York Times, October 19, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/19/business/restaurants-robots-workers.html
Julie Littman, "Chili’s To Deploy Rita the Robot at 51 More Locations," Restaurant Dive, April 18, 2022, https://www.restaurantdive.com/news/chilis-will-bring-restaurant-robot-to-51-more-stores/622183/