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Robots Will Transform Fast Food – The Atlantic – Medium https://medium.com/the-atlantic/robots-will-transform-fast-food-5e2a40...

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Dec 7, 2017 · 9 min read

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Robots Will Transform Fast Food – The Atlantic – Medium https://medium.com/the-atlantic/robots-will-transform-fast-food-5e2a40...

Robots Will Transform Fast Food


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Robots Will Transform Fast Food – The Atlantic – Medium https://medium.com/the-atlantic/robots-will-transform-fast-food-5e2a40...

That might not be a bad thing.

Written by Alana Semuels


Illustrations by Steve Scott

V isitors to Henn-na, a restaurant outside Nagasaki, Japan, are


greeted by a peculiar sight: their food being prepared by a row of
humanoid robots that bear a passing resemblance to the Terminator.
The “head chef,” incongruously named Andrew, specializes in
okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake. Using his two long arms, he stirs
batter in a metal bowl, then pours it onto a hot grill. While he waits for
the batter to cook, he talks cheerily in Japanese about how much he
enjoys his job. His robot colleagues, meanwhile, fry donuts, layer soft-
serve ice cream into cones, and mix drinks. One made me a gin and
tonic.

H.I.S., the company that runs the restaurant, as well as a nearby hotel
where robots check guests into their rooms and help with their
luggage, turned to automation partly out of necessity. Japan’s
population is shrinking, and its economy is booming; the
unemployment rate is currently an unprecedented 2.8 percent. “Using
robots makes a lot of sense in a country like Japan, where it’s hard to
�nd employees,” CEO Hideo Sawada told me.

Sawada speculates that 70 percent of the jobs at Japan’s hotels will be

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Robots Will Transform Fast Food – The Atlantic – Medium https://medium.com/the-atlantic/robots-will-transform-fast-food-5e2a40...

automated in the next �ve years. “It takes about a year to two years to
get your money back,” he said. “But since you can work them 24 hours
a day, and they don’t need vacation, eventually it’s more cost-e�cient
to use the robot.”

This may seem like a vision of the future best suited—perhaps only
suited—to Japan. But according to Michael Chui, a partner at the
McKinsey Global Institute, many tasks in the food-service and
accommodation industry are exactly the kind that are easily
automated. Chui’s latest research estimates that 54 percent of the tasks
workers perform in American restaurants and hotels could be
automated using currently available technologies—making it the
fourth-most-automatable sector in the U.S.

The robots, in fact, are already here. Chowbotics, a company in


Redwood City, California, manufactures Sally, a boxy robot that
prepares salads ordered on a touch screen. At a Palo Alto café, I
watched as she deposited lettuce, corn, barley, and a few inadvertently
crushed cherry tomatoes into a bowl. Botlr, a robot butler, now brings
guests extra towels and toiletries in dozens of hotels around the
country. I saw one at the Aloft Cupertino.

Ostensibly, this is worrying. America’s economy isn’t humming along


nearly as smoothly as Japan’s, and one of the few bright spots in recent
years has been employment in restaurants and hotels, which have
added more jobs than almost any other sector. That growth, in fact, has
helped dull the blow that automation has delivered to other industries.
The food-service and accommodation sector now employs 13.7 million
Americans, up 38 percent since 2000. Since 2013, it has accounted for
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Robots Will Transform Fast Food – The Atlantic – Medium https://medium.com/the-atlantic/robots-will-transform-fast-food-5e2a40...

more jobs than manufacturing.

These new positions once seemed safe from the robot hordes because
they required a human touch in a way that manufacturing or mining
jobs did not. When ordering a co�ee or checking into a hotel, human
beings want to interact with other human beings—or so we thought.
The companies bringing robots into the service sector are betting that
we’ll be happy to trade our relationship with the chipper barista or
knowledgeable front-desk clerk for greater e�ciency. They’re also
con�dent that adding robots won’t necessarily mean cutting human
jobs.

obots have arrived in American restaurants and hotels for the same

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Robots Will Transform Fast Food – The Atlantic – Medium https://medium.com/the-atlantic/robots-will-transform-fast-food-5e2a40...

R reasons they �rst arrived on factory �oors. The cost of machines,


even sophisticated ones, has fallen signi�cantly in recent years,
dropping 40 percent since 2005, according to the Boston Consulting
Group. Labor, meanwhile, is getting expensive, as some cities and
states pass laws raising the minimum wage.

“We think we’ve hit the point where labor-wage rates are now making
automation of those tasks make a lot more sense,” Bob Wright, the
chief operations o�cer of Wendy’s, said in a conference call with
investors last February, referring to jobs that feature “repetitive
production tasks.” Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Panera are in the process
of installing self-service kiosks in locations across the country, allowing
customers to order without ever talking to an employee. Starbucks
encourages customers to order on its mobile app; such transactions
now account for 10 percent of sales.

Business owners insist that robots will take over work that is dirty,
dangerous, or just dull, enabling humans to focus on other tasks. The
international chain CaliBurger, for example, will soon install Flippy, a
robot that can �ip 150 burgers an hour. John Miller, the CEO of Cali
Group, which owns the chain, says employees don’t like manning the
hot, greasy grill. Once the robots are sweating in the kitchen, human
employees will be free to interact with customers in more-targeted
ways, bringing them extra napkins and asking them how they’re
enjoying their burgers. Blaine Hurst, the CEO and president of Panera,
told me that his no-longer-needed cashiers have been tasked with
keeping tabs on the customer experience. Panera customers typically
retrieve their food from the counter themselves. But at restaurants
where they place their orders at kiosks, employees now bring food from
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the kitchen to their tables. “That labor has been redeployed back into
the café to provide a di�erentiated guest experience,” Hurst said.

How many employees, though, do you need milling about in the café?
The early success of the kiosks suggests that, at least when ordering
fast food, patrons prize speed over high-touch customer service. Will
companies like CaliBurger and Panera see su�cient value in employing
human greeters and soup-and-sandwich deliverers to keep those
positions around long-term?

The experience of Eatsa may be instructive. The start-up restaurant,


based in San Francisco, allows customers to order its quinoa bowls and
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Robots Will Transform Fast Food – The Atlantic – Medium https://medium.com/the-atlantic/robots-will-transform-fast-food-5e2a40...

salads on their smartphone or an in-store tablet and then pick up their


order from an eerie white wall of cubbies—an Automat for the app
age. Initially, two greeters were stationed alongside the cubbies to
welcome and direct customers. But over time, customers relied less
frequently on the greeters, co-founder and CEO Tim Young told me,
and the company now employs a single greeter in its restaurants.

The type of person who orders a grain bowl on an iPhone is perhaps


content to forgo a welcoming human face. There may not be enough
such people to sustain a business, however, at least not yet. Eatsa
announced in October that it was closing its locations in New York City;
Washington, D.C.; and Berkeley. Young told me that the problem was
the food, not the technology, and that other restaurant chains are
interested in deploying Eatsa’s model. The taco salad I ordered was
pretty good, though, and, at $8, cheaper than the fare at many other
salad chains. I wondered whether the problem wasn’t that Eatsa had
crossed the �ne line separating e�ciency from something out of Blade
Runner.

Less dystopian was the scene at Zume Pizza, in Mountain View,


California, where I watched an assembly line of robots spread sauce on
dough and lift pies into the oven. Thanks to its early investment in
automation, Zume spends only 10 percent of its budget on labor,
compared with 25 percent at a typical restaurant operation. The
humans it does employ are given above-average wages and perks: Pay
starts at $15 an hour and comes with full bene�ts; Zume also o�ers
tuition reimbursement and tutoring in coding and data science. I talked
with a worker named Freedom Carlson, who doesn’t have a college
degree. She started in the kitchen, where she toiled alongside the
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Robots Will Transform Fast Food – The Atlantic – Medium https://medium.com/the-atlantic/robots-will-transform-fast-food-5e2a40...

robots. She has since been promoted to culinary-program


administrator, and is learning to navigate the software that calculates
nutritional facts for Zume pizzas.

This has typically been the story of automation: Technology obviates


old jobs, but it also creates new ones—the job title radiology technician,
for example, has been included in census data only since 1990.
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Transitioning to a new type of work is never easy, however, and it might


be particularly di�cult for many in the service sector. New jobs that
arise after a technological upheaval tend to require skills that laid-o�
workers don’t have, and not all employers will be nearly as progressive
as Zume. A college education helps insulate workers from automation,
enabling them to develop the kind of expertise, judgment, and
problem-solving abilities that robots can’t match. Yet nearly 80 percent
of workers in food preparation and service-related occupations have a
high-school diploma or less, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The better hope for workers might be that automation helps the food-
service and accommodation sector continue to thrive. Panera’s Hurst
told me that because of its new kiosks, and an app that allows online
ordering, the chain is now processing more orders overall, which
means it needs more total workers to ful�ll customer demand.
Starbucks patrons who use the chain’s app return more frequently than
those who don’t, the company has said, and the greater e�ciency that
online ordering allows has boosted sales at busy stores during peak
hours. Starbucks employed 8 percent more people in the U.S. in 2016
than it did in 2015, the year it launched the app.

Of course, whether automation is a net positive for workers in


restaurants and hotels, and not just a competitive advantage for one
chain over another (more business for machine-enabled Panera, less
for the Luddites at the local deli), will depend on whether an improved
customer experience makes Americans more likely to dine out and stay
at hotels, rather than brown-bagging it or �nding an Airbnb.

That could be the case. James Bessen, an economist at Boston


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Robots Will Transform Fast Food – The Atlantic – Medium https://medium.com/the-atlantic/robots-will-transform-fast-food-5e2a40...

University School of Law, found that as the number of ATMs in America


increased �vefold from 1990 to 2010, the number of bank tellers also
grew. Bessen believes that ATMs drove demand for consumer banking:
No longer constrained by a branch’s limited hours, consumers used
banking services more frequently, and people who were unbanked
opened accounts to take advantage of the new technology. Although
each branch employed fewer tellers, banks added more branches, so
the number of tellers grew overall. And as machines took over many
basic cash-handling tasks, the nature of the tellers’ job changed. They
were now tasked with talking to customers about products—a
certi�cate of deposit, an auto loan—which in turn made them more
valuable to their employers. “It’s not clear that automation in the
restaurant industry will lead to job losses,” Bessen told me.

My experience with service bots was mixed. The day I visited the Aloft
Cupertino, its robot butler was on the fritz. And when I asked
Marriott’s new arti�cial-intelligence-powered chat system to look up
my rewards number, it said it would get a human to help me with that.
Neither interaction left me anticipating more-frequent hotel stays. As I
wrote this column, however, Starbucks went from being a weekly
splurge to a daily routine. The convenience of the app was di�cult to
pass up: I could place my order while on the bus and �nd my drink
waiting for me when I got to the counter.

One day, I arrived at my local store to �nd that it had instituted a new
policy requiring customers to retrieve mobile orders from a barista.
(Apparently things can get a little hairy at the mobile-pickup station
during rush hour at some stores.) I didn’t like the change; I’d grown
accustomed to frictionless transactions. I started going to a di�erent
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Robots Will Transform Fast Food – The Atlantic – Medium https://medium.com/the-atlantic/robots-will-transform-fast-food-5e2a40...

Starbucks location nearby, where I could pick up my co�ee without the


interference of a fellow human being.

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