Tech is easing restaurants' labor needs, but there's an asterisk

Innovation seems to be slowing turnover more than eliminating jobs, at least for now.
Automated innovation in the kitchen. | Illustration by Marty McCake and Nico Heins

Nearly half the nation’s restaurateurs are counting on technology to be more of an aid this year in easing the industry’s chronic labor woes, the National Restaurant Association discovered in drafting its annual state-of-the-business snapshot.

There’s far less of a consensus on the how.

At one end of the possibilities range is the direct replacement of human job holders with machines that can do the work. Some of the biggest names in the business are attempting that wholesale robotization of operations, including Chipotle, Sweetgreen and Taco Bell. Their all-digital ventures are in addition to completely mechanized ventures from Chipotle founder Steve Ells and Flippy the Robot creator Miso Robotics.

Yet even a number of those automation proponents say they’re out to eliminate particular tasks, not the human job holders who’ve traditionally shouldered them. They insist they’re not reducing headcounts, just shifting the most grueling aspects of a position from carbon lifeform to digital machine.

They are part of a chorus that insists technology’s big benefit to restaurant employers right now is its dampening effect on turnover. The theory holds that employees are less likely to walk if they’re spared the grind and aggravation that sent predecessors running.

The second part of the theorem is that the minutes or hours previously devoted to those odious aspects of the job can be refocused on service and otherwise enhancing customers’ experiences.

“In our surveys, we find that workers have real aversions to jobs that involved real physical labor. The industry has made a huge investment in making the jobs less stressful and more comfortable.” — Julia Pollack, chief economist for ZipRecruiter

Cynics contend it’s just spin-doctoring. Big consumer brands don’t want to be accused of killing jobs by buying robots to do the work of humans.  

But research supports the contention that the current focus is more on easing restaurant jobs than on eliminating them.

“Absolutely,” says Julia Pollack, chief economist for ZipRecruiter. The job-listing website recently released a comprehensive report on the state of the hospitality job market. “In our surveys, we find that workers have real aversions to jobs that involved real physical labor. The industry has made a huge investment in making the jobs less stressful and more comfortable.”

Starbucks is a case in point. During a visit to the coffee giant’s research lab in Seattle, executives demonstrated a piece of new technology that’s decidedly un-NASA-like and promises little direct impact on sales or profits. Yet executives hailed it as a crucial innovation because of its impact on labor.

They explained that Starbucks’ boom in cold-drink orders, to the point where they now account for 75% of sales, has geometrically increased the amount of ice a Starbucks café uses. The stores weren’t built to handle that demand; ice makers are often located on the outside of the building or in some other remote location. To keep baristas supplied, about 75 buckets of ice, each weighing 25 pounds, have to be lugged in a routine day to in-store bins.

The task proved too much for some employees, feeding union accusations the brand was overburdening its staffs as operations grew more complicated.

So, Starbucks switched to nugget ice and set up pipelines to channel it on demand from ice maker to drink station. All employees now have to do is lift a container to the dispenser.

Technology is also significantly easing the stress that can burn out managers. “They are increasingly using specialized technology for recruiting, onboarding, scheduling and managing talent in roles at the front of the house efficiently,” states the ZipRecruiter report.

Cutting jobs

Slowing turnover may be a near-term benefit, but the longer-range prospect of restaurant technology is indeed reducing the number of employees needed to run a restaurant, according to Pollack.

Currently, many of the tech initiatives announced by chains are focused on order-taking, whether placed via drive-thru, kiosk, tablet or smartphone. The 3,000-unit Jersey Mike’s Subs chain, for instance, recently announced that 50 stores will now use an AI system to field to-go orders from patrons instead of having humans take the phone calls. The employees who formerly handled the orders will be re-deployed to improve the experiences of dine-in customers, according to the announcement.

Not coincidentally, the positions likely to decrease the most in number during the next decade are cashier’s jobs, according to Deputy, an online platform for managing hourly employees. The Big Shift, a comprehensive labor study drafted by the company, projects that 348,100 fewer cashiers will be needed economywide by 2032.

More payrolls would likely be cut if the technology needed to do it weren’t so expensive, suggests Kura Sushi USA.

With about 56 domestic branches, Kura Sushi USA couldn’t afford the sort of big-ticket technology that Sweetgreen or Chipotle are eyeing in their digital makeovers, says Ben Porten, SVP of investor relations and business development for the revolving sushi-bar chain. “You’d need a scale of 200 to 300 restaurants to make it cost effective,” he says.

Kura Sushi

Kura Sushi’s conveyor serving system. | Photo courtesy of Emily J. Davis

But it has a resources-sharing agreement with Kura Sushi Inc., the 450-unit global chain that spun it off as a publicly owned American company. The parent is developing an automatic dishwashing system that will reduce a Kura Sushi unit’s payroll by one person, and the USA operation anticipates getting access to the technology by fiscal 2025.

“I’d say it’s been under development for a year,” says Porten. “Our parent has probably invested over $1 million in it.”

Yet the system has not yet been tested in a single store. Essentially, it builds on a quasi-automatic system that’s already in place within the restaurants.

A Kura Sushi unit, international or domestic, features two conveyors that run through the seating area. One is an express conveyor that brings a customer’s orders directly to his or her place. The other carries a constant stream of small plates that patrons can take off the belt. About 70% of sales come from that constant feed of options.

After one of the dishes off that conveyor is emptied, guests slide it through a slot at their place. The number of dishes figures into the tab.

Underneath the constant-feed conveyor is a stream that carries the plates to a dishwashing area. “Picture a log flume,” says Porten.

Two employees then rack the dishes and run them through a washer.

With the new tech, the system also handles the racking. Only one employee is needed to keep the system going, and then largely as a troubleshooter.

Kura expects advances like that to help it hold the line on prices as labor costs continue to escalate, particularly in California, where it has a concentration of stores.

Tech as an attraction

In addition to cutting retention and reducing overall labor needs, technology is starting to help in the recruitment process by sweetening the appeal of restaurant jobs, according to Pollack.

“There’s the benefit to the rank-and-file hourly employees who want more attractive, tech-enabled jobs,” she says. “The jobs are more interesting.”

But the need for technological fluency at the corporate level can pose a challenge, she notes. Restaurant companies are finding themselves competing with businesses across the spectrum for candidates with digital knowhow.

Simultaneously, Pollack says, restaurant employers are counterbalancing their reliance on technology by hiring increasingly for “soft skills,” like reliability and being personable. The goal, she said, is to promote service and hospitality while operating more efficiently.

Not coincidentally, she says, that’s why one of the factors favoring job candidates is “a curiosity about technology.”

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