Reshaping the Restaurant Landscape: Forecasting the Fate of Restaurant Labor in a Robotic Era

Photo via Robb Report Magazine

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Innovation in the restaurant industry is intuitively understood to result in fewer restaurant jobs for workers. After all, why would restaurants keep paying low-wage workers when robots can replace them? Robots can perform the tasks of flipping burgers, frying potatoes, and tossing a salad more efficiently than any worker.

Steve Ells, founder and former CEO of Chipotle Mexican Grill, has found a way to integrate machines into the fast food business while retaining jobs and increasing the quality of life for his employees. His ambitiously innovative concept is Kernel, which only has one Manhattan location. The restaurant serves meat-free sandwiches, salads, and sides, all made to order by a joint team of workers and robots. A skeleton crew of 3 employees works alongside a team of robots to help complete every order. 

To put this small workforce into perspective, running a casual counter-service restaurant typically takes anywhere from 15 to 40 employees. The average Chiptole has approximately 20 to 40 employees on its payroll, with over 110,000 employees total. This makes Kernel’s small staff size exceptional. If Ells’s concept can remain profitable, the structure of Kernel, with a joint robot and human crew, could have significant implications for the American restaurant industry. 

Ells is one of many people who are trying to integrate robots into the restaurant industry. McDonald’s tested out a robotic fryer in 2019 but eventually shelved the concept, citing a need for more practicality. Implementing robots in conventional industrial kitchens requires substantial upgrades to existing culinary infrastructure. Modernizing kitchens is a hurdle that makes robots a complicated practical reality, especially given the standard fast food franchise model that requires branch owners to foot most of the bill. 

The problem with robots in the restaurant industry is that if done wrong, the capital invested in automation can divert funds away from the bottom line. If restaurants heavily invest in the automation of their kitchens, and that automation is poorly suited for their needs, their misled investment could cause financial downfall. The risks associated with automation result in only a tiny sect of restaurants experimenting with robots; large chains or uber-wealthy individuals are the only ones capable of sparing the capital. 

Regardless of robotic innovation spearheaded by large food-service corporations looking to cut costs, innovation is inevitable. Robots are critical to solving several issues in the restaurant industry, primarily exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, robots can lower a restaurant’s greatest operational cost—its payroll. However, eliminating jobs, synonymous with lowering payroll expenses, would fundamentally change the hospitality industry. Not only would it remove the human element of eating at a restaurant, but it would also end the little-to-no experience jobs that are a backbone of the American economy. 

There are ways to implement robots without terminating the entire restaurant workforce, however. As seen with Kernel, employees still need to interact with guests and perform tasks the robots simply can’t. Restaurants are steering away from automated ordering systems because of the pushback received by consumers. Steve Ells’s unique integration of employees at Kernel allows employees to supplement the development and work of the robots that are the mainstay of their kitchen. At Kernel, employees are relied upon to improve the operations of their automated systems. One employee met with the software team to discuss recoding their burger robot to ensure the toasted bun was ready at the same time as the burger patty. Another employee discussed rearranging the assembly line to protect employee’s backs. According to Yahoo Finance, employees at Kernel claim to be working a “restaurant job unlike any other.” They benefit from a less strenuous work environment and receive $25 an hour, paid vacation leave, and stock option plans. 

If Kernel can profit from its integrative robot and human workforce while also providing employees with uncharacteristically generous benefits, it will set a new standard for restaurants. The restaurant industry’s notorious reputation for grueling hours and relentless managers would cease to exist. However, as a result, it’s only natural for the demographic of people drawn to the industry to change. Higher wages, stock options, and other benefits will likely entice people with out-of-industry experience to apply for restaurant jobs. The people hired at integrated robot kitchens are less likely to be experienced burger flippers; instead, they’re likely to be proficient in Javascript, have management experience, and have a college degree. The cut in payroll costs would make restaurant jobs more competitive and inherently scarcer, especially when coupled with unprecedented benefits. This would attract employees outside the industry and could even cut out longtime restaurant workers. 

But doesn’t this shift towards a utopian-esque restaurant industry, with great benefits and high wages, also have larger implications for the food service industry as a backbone of the American economy?

America’s restaurants are, indeed, a pillar of its economy, as they provide employment opportunities for people of any educational background anywhere in the country. Regardless of what state or city you live in—urban or rural, conservative or liberal—restaurants exist. In fact, around 800,000 restaurants in the United States employ around 12.5 million people. Restaurants serve as a safe employment option for anyone moving to different parts of the country, in between jobs, or just looking for extra income. They are a safe employment option, as jobs in the industry are easily attainable and abundant. 

Many people would be unemployed without these opportunities, which are acquirable without much accreditation, schooling, or experience. Restaurants like Kernel, which require employees to be integrally involved in the development and maintenance of innovative technologies, though still requiring only a few employees, will make employment less attainable for people who have been drawn to the industry for decades. Also, the increase in competition for the few available jobs will make positions in the industry less realizable for the millions of people drawn to the industry for its flexible and abundant employment opportunities.

What makes the restaurant industry such a large employment sector is the flexibility, abundance, and commonality of the jobs. This allows people to always count on a restaurant job being available no matter what. However, implementing robots in restaurants, while intended to lower labor costs, will dissolve all the characteristics that have defined restaurant employment for decades. Jobs will no longer be readily available and become increasingly harder to obtain. 

This is not to say that innovation in the industry is entirely negative. Industry professionals have advocated for increased quality of life for restaurant workers for decades, and it might be realistically attainable once robots become commonplace in kitchens. Implementing retirement funds and employee equity programs is critical to addressing income disparities nationwide. But, all of these initiatives are bound to alter what has defined the restaurant industry as a reliable employment opportunity for workers nationwide. With these new initiatives come increased competition and qualification requirements, and the question then arises: what will become the new widely accessible job that is the backbone of the American labor force?

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This article was edited by Marielle Bianchi.