Panera, Chili’s among chains looking to replace workers with machines

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As protesters across the country call for the fast-food chains to raise their wages, a number of companies have begun experimenting with new technology that could significantly reduce the number of restaurant workers in the years to come. (Credit: CNN)

NEW YORK  — As protesters across the country call for the fast-food chains to raise their wages, a number of companies have begun experimenting with new technology that could significantly reduce the number of restaurant workers in the years to come.

Restaurant industry backers warn that a sharp rise in wages would be counterproductive, increasing the appeal of automation and putting more workers at risk of job loss.

“Faced with a $15 wage mandate, restaurants have to reduce the cost of service,” blared an ad in The Wall Street Journal last year from the Employment Policies Institute, which supports corporate interests. “That means fewer entry-level jobs and more automated alternatives — even in the kitchen.”

Other industry observers aren’t so definitive, noting that it takes time to introduce new technology and that human interaction has always been a major component of the hospitality business. What’s clear at least is that software and machines will play an increased role in our dining experiences going forward.

Panera Bread is the latest chain to introduce automated service, announcing last month that it plans to bring self-service ordering kiosks as well as a mobile ordering option to all its locations within the next three years. The news follows moves from Chili’s and Applebee’s to place tablets on their tables, allowing diners to order and pay without interacting with human wait staff at all.

Panera, which spent $42 million developing its new system, claims it isn’t planning any job cuts as a result of the technology, but some analysts see this kind of shift as unavoidable for the industry.

In a widely cited paper released last year, University of Oxford researchers estimated that there is a 92% chance that fast-food preparation and serving will be automated in the coming decades.

With artificial-intelligence technology like IBM’s Watson platform making strides in advanced reasoning and language understanding, it’s not hard to see how robots could be designed to provide more sophisticated interactions with restaurant customers than kiosks can manage.

Delivery drivers could be replaced en masse by self-driving cars, which are likely to hit the market within a decade or two, or even drones. In food preparation, there are start-ups offering robots for bartending and gourmet hamburger preparation. A food processing company in Spain now uses robots to inspect heads of lettuce on a conveyor belt, throwing out those that don’t meet company standards, the Oxford researchers report.

Darren Tristano, a food industry expert with the research firm Technomic, said digital technology will “slowly, over time, create efficiency and labor savings” for restaurants. He guessed that work forces would only drop as a result by 5% or 10% at a maximum in the decades to come, however, given the expectations that customers have for the dining experience.

“If you look at the thousands of years that consumers have been served alcohol and food by people, it’s hard to imagine that things will change that quickly,” he said.

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6 comments

    • MeacT

      So, a target market of people that frequent Applebee’s are Applebee’s employees? If so, that’s a horrible marketing strategy.

  • MeacT

    A drop of only 5-10% of staff? I think he’s only referring to high-end restaurants. The vast majority of food service workers come from the lower end restaurants. It’s highly likely that there will be a reduction of 80-90%. As a Software Engineer, I always remind people, never complain or become a problem if your job can be automated. Restaurant workers (front end and back end) is one of the easiest, next to a BMV worker, to automate. One of the best service places I visit is in rural Ohio and it is all automated. I have never had bad service, I don’t have to tip anyone, the food is better than most place, it is freshly made and made to order. I don’t need someone to ask me if I want fries with that, when I can clearly make that decision without the question.

  • MeacT

    If you look at the thousands of years that people have been getting around using horses and buggies, it’s hard to imagine that things will change that quickly, Said the buggy whip maker in 1875.

  • Anonymous

    Those people in Seattle screwed their selfs. Instead of trying to get $15 an why didn’t they just fight for 40 hours. I’m a tradesman and I have worked for $8.00 an hour and $10 an hour and $12 an hour to learn my trade and having 40 hours is what made it possible. Making that low pay is what drove me harder to get somewhere in life. Now I have knowledge I don’t need a company to work for now I work for myself and set my own price. I pay near $40,000 in taxes every year to help people fix there mistakes by giving larger tax breaks to them and federal school funding, and all they do is want more money. To “help their self get some where” and they never do it, they just keep making burgers and babies and nothing of their self. Now guess what you can people can just starve.

  • Anonymous

    While you are replacing employees better be building yourself some replacement customers.

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