Are Restaurants Phasing Out Human Workers?

Photo courtesy of Infinium Robotics

Shortly after placing an order via iPad, your dinner conversation is interrupted by a soft whirring sound. You duck slightly, realizing the hum has come from a small four-rotor aircraft, but it’s safely above your headspace. You relax. It’s a drone, and it’s arrived with your glass of wine.

 This scene describes what an experience might be like at Timbre, a Singapore restaurant where drones have recently been deployed to deliver food and drinks.

Talks of automated restaurant services have been in the works for years, and now some casual dining restaurants may soon be abuzz with tablets, drones, and humanoid robots.

Tablets At the Dinner Table

In addition to waitstaff (and occasionally in lieu of), these technologies are being integrated into restaurant systems to optimize customer satisfaction. Companies like Chili’s Grill & Bar, Applebee’s, and UNO Chicago Grill have turned to Ziosk tablets to impart quick ordering and easy payment.

Photo courtesy of Ziosk

By ordering and paying directly through tabletop tablets, customers can cut down on human interaction, leaving less room for human error and, some argue, leaving people more inclined to indulge on an appetizer or dessert (or both), free from the feared judgement of a server. Waiters are still present, but with much of the order-taking burden alleviated.  

The tablet systems have also helped to speed up table turnaround, trimming an estimated 5 minutes off of each meal. And, due to heightened customer satisfaction and a default 20 percent tip suggestion on every tablet, Ziosk has found that patrons are tipping their servers more graciously.

Robot Restaurants

Other companies aim to cut out waitstaff altogether. To do this, a San Francisco restaurant, Eatsa, has revived the automat, a type of dining center free of cashiers and waiters, instead relying on vending machines.

At Eatsa, orders are placed on iPads or mobile apps. When the food is ready it appears in a cubby with your name on it, prepared and placed by an out of sight kitchen worker.

In China, one restaurant owner has swapped human servers with robots, which can take orders and have limited conversations. The human-like robots use an optical sensing system to prevent them from crashing into objects or people.

Photo courtesy of Daily Mail
Photo courtesy of Daily Mail

Robots of this kind cost over $9,000 each, but the owner insists they are ultimately saving him money, and have turned the restaurant into a novelty attraction for tourists.

The Washington Post reported recently that the minimum wage hike may drive fast-food companies in the United States to start looking into robots, and they aren’t the only ones speculating.

A 2013 study estimates that there is a 92 percent chance that food service jobs will become automated in the foreseeable future. As these developments continue to pick up pace, some workers fear that their jobs may soon be lost to technology.

Tablets collect data, monitoring customer satisfaction and waiter performance, allowing companies to track the successes of their staff members individually. Consistent low scores on these reports could lead to the firing of workers.

As the tablet trend continues to grow, Ziosk asserts that its mission is not to render human service jobs obsolete. Instead, the tablets are meant to be used in partnership with servers.

Despite these assurances, many food workers remain skeptical, as NPR expressed in a segment on Ziosks.

“Service jobs were a refuge for people when robots took factory jobs. But robots are moving in there too. The latest group of workers getting replaced by machines: food servers.”


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