A Delicate Balance

by Katie Lee

— By Savneet Singh —

Balancing automation and workforce: navigating the future of restaurants.

In an era of shrinking workforces and rising costs, the restaurant industry faces significant challenges in maintaining operational efficiency and profitability while delivering exceptional customer experiences. Many establishments have implemented automation — including robots and artificial intelligence (AI) — to address these pain points and supplement their human workforce.

While automation enhances productivity and streamlines operations, restaurants must balance relying on technology and prioritizing the hiring/retention of employees.

A Growing Need for Automation

In a labor-driven, labor-intensive industry, staffing shortages wreak havoc on operations. Some restaurants have tested robots in the kitchen. Chipotle assigned a robot tortilla chip-making duties last year, for example, and Miso Robotics rents Flippy, a robotic sous-chef programmed to make chicken wings and flip burgers. 

With 72% of operators reporting challenges meeting dinner expectations because more people are placing digital orders, QSR restaurants are exploring ways to integrate automation. QSRs expect over 50% of operations — and full-service restaurants anticipate 27% of their tasks — will rely on automation by 2025. Currently, 22% of operators use tech to save on kitchen labor, and 19% have focused on front-of-house automation.

Plenty of opportunities for automation exist right now. Self-ordering kiosks and online and mobile ordering reduce the need for manual order-taking while improving convenience. Order management systems can efficiently organize and transmit orders to the kitchen with fewer errors. In addition to robotic kitchen assistants, advanced cooking equipment like automated ovens and fryers ensure precise temperatures and cooking times.

Automation systems can also help track inventory, monitor ingredients and expiration dates, and generate alerts when stock requires replenishing. Integrating inventory management systems with suppliers enables restaurant managers to create automated orders, streamlining the procurement process and reducing manual effort. Automation systems can collect and analyze data related to customer behavior, operational metrics and sales.

Restaurants can also use automated scheduling software to simplify the scheduling process and consider factors like staff availability, shift preferences and labor laws to optimize staffing levels and reduce scheduling conflicts. Automation can facilitate staff task assignments, reminders and progress tracking.

But all the automation in the world won’t help unless a restaurant has reliable, qualified employees.

Attracting & Retaining Employees

In January 2023, the restaurant industry’s labor force hovered at 450,000 jobs below 2020 levels. This labor crunch has resulted in lower productivity (and lower profits) — with employees working harder for longer hours and with few incentives to stay.

Even before the pandemic, many restaurants found it difficult to hire. The industry’s pay scale is notoriously inadequate, and jobs are physically and emotionally demanding. The sector lacks advancement opportunities. And far too many restaurants have toxic or discriminatory environments.

This perfect storm of obstacles contributes to an average churn of 46%. In 2022, only 54% of QSR employees reached their 90-day milestone before quitting. So how can restaurants attract and retain talent? Here are a few suggestions:

• Offer competitive compensation and benefits. Wages should align with industry standards and include performance-based raises or bonuses. Provide health insurance, retirement plans and paid time off to incentivize employees to stay.

• Provide development and growth opportunities. Implement training programs and cross-training initiatives to foster professional development and growth. Promote qualified employees internally.

• Extend work perks and incentives. Free shift meals, employee recognition activities, referral bonuses and performance-based incentives encourage excellence. Give employee discounts for dining at the restaurant — or partner establishments.

• Foster a positive work environment/culture. Inclusive, positive environments promoting teamwork, respect and open communication help attract and retain employees. Implement equitable scheduling practices and, when feasible, flexible working arrangements.

• Encourage employee engagement and involvement. Regular team meetings, suggestion boxes or online platforms invite employee feedback. Welcome input on company decisions when possible. Foster workplace ownership and pride by collectively setting goals — and celebrating achievements.

• Champion transparent, effective communication. Keep employees informed about critical updates or company initiatives. Actively listen to concerns or grievances, and address them promptly and fairly. Offer consistent, constructive feedback, as well as coaching and mentoring.

• Think outside the box to find new employees! Partner with culinary schools, community colleges or vocational programs to create internships for students eager to gain experience. Apprenticeships offer practical training and develop a pipeline of skilled talent. Participate in career fairs and industry events to connect with potential employees — and showcase your restaurant as a great workplace.

Balancing Automation & Human Interaction

Robots have their place, but nothing replaces the importance of human touch in the dining experience. Find places to integrate automation to enhance employee productivity, not replace your workforce. Instead, use automation to handle repetitive, mundane tasks and free employees for higher-value, customer-facing activities.

QSRs can use AI-powered chatbots via touchscreen kiosks to facilitate faster, more accurate ordering, especially for rush-hour efficiency. These kiosks assist cashiers, freeing them to fill orders. QSRs can also program drive-thru digital service assistants to take orders, know the menu, answer questions about ingredients or nutrition, make recommendations and offer real-time inventory updates.

AI collects valuable, actionable data to help brands better serve customers. Machine learning (ML) and AI identify data partners to:

• Understand the customer experience.

• Improve menu planning/pricing.

• Develop more targeted marketing campaigns and personalized offers.

• Derive insights via predictive analytics and sales forecasting methods to help restaurant operators plan more accurately for the future.

Automation holds tremendous potential for the restaurant industry. However, you should approach its implementation with intention. With a focus on attracting and retaining talent — while leveraging automation to enhance the customer experience — restaurants create a more harmonious balance between technological advancement and human interaction.

The future lies in a hybrid workforce model, where automation complements human capabilities and ultimately leads to improved operational efficiency, customer satisfaction and profitability in the evolving restaurant landscape.

— Savneet Singh is the president & CEO of PAR Technology Corp. and president of ParTech, Inc., a leading global provider of software, systems and service solutions to the restaurant and retail industries. Visit www.partech.com.

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