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Future of Work: Integrating Robots into Restaurants


Restaurants, especially casual dining and fast food, are quickly replacing many of the tasks that humans do. So far these efforts have primarily been focused on placing either kiosks at the register (Panera and McDonalds) or tablets on the tables (Applebees).

The CEO of Panera claims that in the restaurant industry, on average, 1 out of 7 food orders processed by humans are wrong. This means that restaurant chains are losing millions due to human error. Tablets and kiosks will eliminate this waste.

But tablets also solve another pain point in the restaurant industry and that is around payment. All of us have at one time or another been frustrated trying to get our waiters attention to bring us the check. It not only decreases customer satisfaction but results in lost revenue for the restaurant due to slow table turnover.

Research also shows that at restaurants where tableside tablets are utilized customers actually buy more. In other words, they are up sold.

These three problems are the result of poor worker quality and lack of training. In other words, waiters should not make mistakes when taking orders, should always be ready with the check, and they should always try and up sell the customer to buy an additional appetizer, dessert, or drink. That is the mark of a quality wait staff. It is the mark of a quality restaurant operation.

But here is the rub. Chain restaurants have trouble finding, training and retaining high quality staff. It is the nature of the business. It is why their prices are lower. If they invested more in their workers and training their costs would rise and once that happened then consumers would opt for smaller local chains or independent restaurants for the same price. Chains are caught between a rock and a hard place.

But with all of the benefits that these technologies bring they also bring potential risk if the restaurant chain does not design their integration properly.

Think about it this way. If tableside tablets replace the human relationship then restaurants run the risk of competing entirely on price, location and quality of their food. Let’s take Applebee’s as an example. It is testing out tableside tablets in a selection of their restaurants and if successful they will roll them out nationally. Lower employ costs, less waste of food due to wrong orders, faster table turnover and more food and beverage sales. Sounds great right? Well, maybe.

I eat out frequently and I think that I am like most restaurant goers in that I tend to migrate to restaurants where the wait staff knows me, where they know my favorite drink, etc. It is one of the primary drivers for the restaurant that I choose to eat at on any given night. And this type of “relationship pull” is tremendously important in the ultra competitive restaurant industry.

So what is the solution? I would argue that it is using the design principles that I lay out in The Way of the Navigator.

If we understand that the Zone of Highest Value of service in restaurants is found within both that personal relationship I describe above as well as in helping customers navigate the complexity of the food choices then the solution answer is easy.

Eliminate the tasks that distract the wait staff from doing those things that distract them from the higher value portion of their jobs; building relationships and offering insightful and quality food selection advice based on their knowledge of the menu as well as the likes and dislikes of their customers.

So use technology for payments and the actual process of “ordering” and spend some of the savings to not only recruit higher quality wait staff, and put more money into training, but to completely re-design the job itself.

The best quality restaurants, the ones that last forever because of the loyalty of their patrons, are those with a concierge that knows everyone and who walks the room making small talk and telling jokes. They are those with a wine sommelier that is an expert in their field. And the list goes on and on.

I would have less wait staff but task the ones I do have solely with helping the patrons feel at home. The first casual dining restaurant that does this will dominate the market. Sadly, most will see the implementation purely as a cost savings measure and that short sighted approach will hurt them over time.


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