Robot waiters? The increasing impact of automation on hospitality

Glynn Davis takes a look at the ways new technologies are being implemented to tackle issues in the UK's embattled hospitality industry.

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Nobody is in any doubt that hospitality businesses are facing great pressures from many directions, which is driving them to source more efficient ways to operate and this increasingly involves investigating automation.

Such technologies are beginning to have a meaningful impact within the back-of-house operations, with robots and automated solutions replacing some of the many repetitive human tasks within kitchens. The fast food brands are the first adopters but the widespread use of such technology in varying capacities across the entire food and drink industry looks inevitable. 

Customers want customisation

The challenges in kitchens from staff shortages has been exacerbated by the rise in the levels of customisation of food and drink – partly driven by ordering at kiosks that promotes creating tailored dishes and a mix-and-match approach. At coffee chain Starbucks as many as 66% of all drinks now sold are customised in some form or other and it’s the same with many take-away and food-to-go operators.

To address this Starbucks has developed its Siren System that automates much of the drink production process and alleviates the growing issues around the tailoring of options by improving efficiency. Consider that its Grande Mocha Frappuccino previously took a barista 87 seconds and 16 steps to produce.  This has been reduced to a mere 36 seconds and 13 steps with new machinery and procedures. 

Automatic solutions

Customisation has also led to increased confusion with orders taken at drive-thru windows and a growing number of operators are experimenting with artificial intelligence (AI)-powered automation technology. McDonald’s is using a solution from IBM while Panera Bread (sister company of Pret A Manger under the ownership of JAB) has introduced an automated solution into two outlets to improve speed of service as well as order accuracy. 

Meanwhile, Domino’s claims a similar solution has enabled its restaurants to double their order volumes at peak times. Overall, the upsides from such automation looks great with: a boost to customer throughput; improved order accuracy; and the opportunity to use the software for intelligent upselling tactics. 

Accuracy and the ability to operate with a lower headcount are behind the ongoing activities at Chipotle and US-based Sweetgreen where the development of various automated elements is happening at pace. They are both investing heavily in robotic components that can undertake specific tasks such as dispensing dressing, mixing salads, and at Chipotle there is the guacamole making robot (dubbed ‘Autocado’).

At the most advanced Sweetgreen outlet all the prep is undertaken by humans but the ingredients are then loaded into its automated assembly line that constructs all the dishes as the orders are received from customers. Such is the confidence at Sweetgreen for this new way of working that it predicts all its outlets will be automated within five years.

Getting wasted

Another driver of automated solutions in the kitchen is waste. For hotels including Accor Hotels in the Netherlands along with Novotel, Sofitel, Compass and Center Parcs they have adopted technology from Orbisk. When food is thrown into the bin a photograph is taken of the items and a scale below the bin weighs the waste materials. 

AI-powered software recognises the items and over a period of time can build up a detailed picture of what is wasted and from this determine patterns and issues that can be addressed. It can recognise if the items are leftovers from customers’ plates, from the buffet, or from chefs’ chopping boards. The solution has helped the Accor sites roughly halve the level of food waste and this might be cut further when it is able to use predictive capabilities. 

Robot workers

There is no doubt that automation and robots are playing an increasing role in kitchens but when it comes to the front-of-house they continue to be largely viewed as gimmicky. It is the ongoing staff shortages that has led restaurant operators such as Bella Italia to revisit the technology and undertake tentative deployments.

Bella Italia is among the restaurants to have introduced robots to improve operational efficiency, reduce labour costs, and provide a unique guest experience. The results have been impressive, with significant improvements in sales per labour hour, spend per head, and various guest metrics. 

The robots are most valued during busy periods when they can support the waiting staff, reducing the time and distance spent carrying plates, which allows the team to focus more on their guests. Additionally, the robots offer a unique and interactive experience for guests, enhancing their overall dining experience.

Greg Gibbons, operational support director at The Big Table Group – which operates the Bella Italia chain, says: “One of the significant advantages of using robots is their consistency and reliability. Robots don't get tired or need breaks, so they can work continuously without any reduction in productivity.”

Final thoughts

While robots are undoubtedly in the early stages of their deployment in restaurants the use of various forms of automation is becoming widespread as it can drive serious efficiency gains and cost savings across all types of hospitality businesses. The rapid advances in AI, and the ramping up of competition between technology providers is driving down the prices of automation solutions and encouraging adoption. This is beginning to touch almost all parts of the hospitality sector.

Head shot of freelance business journalist Glynn Davis.
Glynn Davis

Glynn Davis is a business journalist specialising in the retail and food and drink sectors. As well as writing for publications including Retail Week, Ecommerce Age, Propel, Caterer and Retail Bulletin, he’s also the founder and editor of Retail Insider and Beer Insider.

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