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  • Syd Bishop

The Cost of the Restaurant Robot

Likely, the first thing that comes to your mind when you encounter the word “robot,” is a metallic, humanoid automaton that has by some fluke of science or magic gained sentience. A creation of 20th-century fiction, robots have made the leap from imagination to the real world, from the farm to Mars and beyond. Now found in the kitchen, the restaurant robot can cook, clean, or serve, but at what cost?

Restaurant Staffing Costs

For the most part, the majority of modern restaurants are complemented with a full, human staff of employees who perform a variety of tasks at different levels. More often than not, restaurant staff fill are among some of the lower paying jobs. By their most recent available standards, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) lists wait staff as earning a mean wage of $25,830, while cooks earn a mean annual wage of $30,360. A full-time worker at a quick service earning the federal minimum wage makes a $15,080 assuming a standard 40-hour week.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the BLS lists head chefs as earning a mean annual wage of $52,160, and food service managers as averaging $54,240. Altogether, restaurateurs should anticipate an average labor cost of between 20-30% of gross revenue. Part of that amount includes the costs for the insurance you may need, as well as the costs to train a new hire. It’s worth noting that training costs are a huge variable dependent on your retention, as the restaurant and food industry currently reports a 74.9% annual turnover rate.

Currently, there is research in progress regarding the value of direct human interaction, which is where your staff can pay off. Let’s take a look below at why that might have been, and what might change in the future.

What is a Restaurant Robot?

One of humanity’s fundamental features is the innate ability to employ tools to work smarter, not harder. We benefit from those innovations in our everyday lives, from the way that we engage with one another, to the kitchen. Recently, some restaurateurs have started employing restaurant robots for a variety of mundane tasks, but how feasible are they?

As our knowledge base has grown, our ability to craft mechanical devices for our aid grew exponentially, including early examples like the water clock. The robots of today are employed for a variety of reasons, from the farm to space and beyond. As these robots become increasingly accessible, they’ve made their way into the kitchen as well.

For comparison, let’s take a look at the sorts of robots you might encounter in the restaurant and what they might cost.

The Utility Bot

Meet Flippy. The aptly named robot is a long arm connected to a base that, as the name implies, flips burgers. Flippy is one of a legion of robots that serve a specific utility, from industrial functions like welding or material handling to medical robots. Flippy is affixed to a stationary position and operates utilizing cloud-based sensors and cameras that allow it to coordinate with point-of-sale tools, meaning that the robot can receive and work on orders in real time.

Robots like Flippy are designed to satisfy a niche set of responsibilities, often reliant on a specific set of parameters. While these robots can operate efficiently, they can only satisfy their preparation times in relation to food safety and other variables. For example, if a steak is ordered well done, it may take longer than one that is requested rare. Still, Flippy is efficient and can cut out superfluous time that human agents would require, like breaks or attending to shared responsibilities.

As of last year, Flippy, in its most basic form, costs around $60,000. Produced by Miso Robotics, Flippy is touted for the long term yield on that investment, although the site lists very few specifics around what it might cost to maintenance, or what might happen if the robot were to malfunction.

The Pizza Drone

Drone technology has continued to evolve, moving from fiction to reality in the 21st century. Drones come in all shapes and sizes, from Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) that can collect data or deliver lightweight items, to something much more innocuous like a Roomba. The possibilities are so vast that for the last several years Amazon has promised a future that features drones delivering their products. So will you be able to buy a robot to help?

That reality is still a little off, and for a variety of reasons. First, it’s worth noting that the technology isthere and that drone delivery for restaurants is feasible with current technology, albeit barely. A quad- or multi-copter is sufficient to support the weight of a deliverable food item, although the existing battery life would likely have an incredibly limited range at the moment, offering a radius of about one mile. For most places that deliver food, a one-mile radius is sub-optimal.

“Right now, it’d be a niche-market product. Probably several thousand if not tens of thousands of dollars per unit. You’d need to have insurance, an operator, and probably one or two people that maintain the craft and keep them flying, depending on how many pizzas you want to deliver,” says Dr. Adrian Lauf, the director of the Aerial Robotics Lab at the University of Louisville.

Tangential to drone technology though, is the possibility of self-driving cars as a future fixture of the delivery ecosystem. While less agile, there is an infrastructure already in place for how cars navigate, both in terms of the existing road systems and the range for vehicular travel and battery life.

The Wait Staff Robot

As advertised, the wait staff robot is a semi-autonomous device that, like a Roomba, serves a specific function. Prices vary on this type of restaurant robot, with a range between just a few thousand dollars and around twenty thousand. This type of restaurant robot features laser guidance systems to navigate the room on wheels rather than bipedal legs.

While affordable, some restaurant operators have reported that robotic waitstaff is problematic in the work environment. Engineers have learned from this though, and have begun looking at ways for robotic waitstaff to assist, rather than replace the human element.

The Costs of Maintaining a Restaurant Robot

A side effect of our increasing cultural reliance on technology is the evolution of the service technician. Simply put, the “higher tech” the device, the more knowledge you’ll need to properly restore it, should it require maintenance or repair. While some companies may offer a warranty or service option for their product, if you need to hire a service technician, you are replacing one or more entry-level positions, with a degreed position that pays on average approximately $20 per hour.

At $19.53, the median annual salary is $40,622.40 for a full-time employee. This figure does not include any benefits, which can run up to 1.25 to 1.4 times the base salary range.

According to Lauf, these maintenance fees may ultimately prove minor. He says, “In my mind, these costs are relatively negligible – you’d encounter them by having a company car, delivery van, or anything else like it.”

What Happens if Your Restaurant Robot Malfunctions

It’s a busy Friday night in your burger restaurant. You own a Flippy robot, which has unfortunately malfunctioned. While you can roll the machine out of the way, what do you do to satisfy the demand for food? Ostensibly, at this point, you’ve already replaced that component of your staff with the robot. What next?

You have to hit the ground running if you want to stay in operation. Having a flexible human staff on hand is imperative for business logistics. Make sure you cross train a few members of your team to serve as a back-up as needed and that they have the right tools for the job.

Second, make sure that however your maintenance is handled, you contact them as soon as possible to mitigate downtime. That may be a local professional or someone from the company who can assist you. Check your warranty details to be certain.

If feasible, have a back-up robot. At the moment, it seems unlikely to spend double your down payment for a robot that might collect dust, but it could pay off in multiple ways. For example, if you have the appropriate licenses, perhaps you could use your back-up bot for off-site events, or to operate a ghost kitchen for deliverables or catering events.

The Benefits of a Human Versus Automated Staff

It’s extremely unlikely that robots will replace human workers soon, although inevitable that the technology will evolve in the long run. As it becomes increasingly more affordable to build and maintain a robotic staff, whatever form they may come in, the human component in the restaurant space may shift. For example, at the turn of the last century, the automat reigned in the American pop cultural zeitgeist as an elegant way to dine affordably, while maintaining privacy.

Contrasting that though, with the continued evolution of personal electronic devices and the interconnectivity of each other through social media, and that tide could shift. Human interaction is something that many consumers crave, and while efficient, restaurant robots cannot provide empathy, sympathy, trust, or a number of otherwise ephemeral components that make up the human emotional spectrum.

As robots come to look more and more like us, restaurants employing robots will have to contest with the uncanny valley, the phenomenon that describes the emotional response between a human and a robot with a human appearance, which could provide additional hurdles to customer’s embracing robotic staff.

Conclusion

The margin for the gaps between feasibility and reality continues to shrink as the restaurant robot develops to more and more sophisticated means of operation. Experts warn that this could eventually impact the job market in the restaurant industry in decreasing menial labor, and already there are indications that robotic chefs can yield an increase in value. Sales reports in the industry indicate healthy interest by restaurateurs to stay ahead of the curve, although currently, the trend skews towards supplementing, not replacing human staff.

While some industry leaders believe that this could lead to outcomes like Universal Basic Income, in the short term, the relationship between people is at the core of the restaurant space. Even with advances in artificial intelligence, the scene in the restaurant will remain populated by people talking and engaging with one another until both the technology and cost can keep pace with the needs of restaurateurs.

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