Hospitality heads toward automation

Bring on the automation, since it doesn’t mean sacrificing service.
wow bao touch screen kiosk

Automation won’t make its way into restaurants, because this is a hospitality-driven industry? “Okay,” I say with a roll of the eyes. On a recent trip to a Chicago location of the Asian chain Wow Bao, there was a line four-deep at the ordering kiosk. The cashier right next to the machine? No wait at all. The number of people who love Wow Bao for its service—myself-included—appreciate the speed and convenience factors. To millennials, that’s a big part of what makes up hospitality.

In looking at Restaurant Business’ annual ranking of America’s Favorite Chains, we found a common trend among those brands winning consumers’ favor. This year’s top five chains are a mixed bag of concepts, but they all received high scores in the hospitality and service category. In fact, of all the attributes taken into account to compile the list, these five chains all received their highest marks in the hospitality department. But what does that really look like today?

For a lot of chains, yes, hospitality still means service with a smile and quick, efficient dealings with staffers. But big picture, the definition of hospitality is certainly changing. It has become just as much about modern convenience as it has about pleasant waitstaff (though they can make or break a dining experience, they just might play a slightly different role in the future).

Look at the number of restaurant-goers using order-ahead apps instead of waiting in line to place an order at a fast casual. Look at the number of chains even showing interest in kiosk ordering.

Is it a millennial thing? Maybe. We are digital natives and are very comfortable using our phones, tablets and other tech to interact both with other people and with companies (aka to order, pay, etc.). Then what does that say about the possibility of the seemingly Voldemort of a topic: automation? So many operators I’ve spoken with don’t see how it’s possible to bring in automation without stripping out hospitality. But take that Wow Bao trip, which I’d personally consider a win in the hospitality column. I self-navigated my way to ordering and payment with ease, walked to the other end of the counter and waited for my number to be called. My only person-to-person interaction was the “thank you” I gave the gentleman who handed me my takeout bag. 

Will the widespread restaurant experience be fully automated—a la San Francisco-based automat chain Eatsa? Probably not. Will it creep more and more into the business? I have no doubt about it. Heck, look at what Andy Puzder, CEO of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s—and potential labor secretary of the U.S.—had to say about the topic back in March. “If you’re making labor more expensive, and automation less expensive—this is not rocket science.”

Yes, it’ll save on some labor issues, but not at the expense of the guest experience. If you ask this millennial, it might actually improve some diners’ overall satisfaction with chains by upping the convenience factor.

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