You might have already visited a robot-run restaurant not only in the busy streets of Tokyo but also in popular US states such as New York and Los Angeles. The customers will enter the order through a touchscreen device. The order gets sent to the kitchen staff, where they will prepare your order. Then, in a few minutes, the dishes start to come out, but there’s no wait staff to deliver it. A conveyor belt programmed to step at the right table delivers the dishes straight to you.
When it’s time to pay, you only have to tap the device. You can pay by cash because it gets sent via the conveyor belt, too. However, many of these restaurants will prefer that you pay with a card or your phone.
The technology is seamless. The Japanese were the first ones to use this system of ordering, serving, and paying. Many restaurants have already followed suit, with some going as far as using actual robots as wait staff. And why not? With the pandemic looming above today and in the near future, it looks like robot restaurants are the best options people have for a safe dine-in experience.
What Happens to the Wait Staff, Then?
Of course, not everything is looking up in the restaurant and hospitality business. Sure, restaurants can use robots and other devices to make it safe for customers to dine in, but what happens to the wait staff? How about that 20-year-old college kid trying to make ends meet to get a degree? What happens to that single mom who waits tables at night to send her kids to school? As much as technology brings new avenues for businesses to explore, it is also disenfranchising people who rely on waiting tables.
The good news is that there are still many restaurants that won’t transition to this new age in technology as easily as the high-end ones will. Those who invest in franchise restaurants will have to follow the rules and guidelines set by the franchiser. Still, standalone restaurants will have the option to continue hiring a wait staff until such time they can make the transition to the automated wait staff.
Roles Will Evolve
The technology was never meant to completely replace laborers, of course. It aims to ease processes and simplify transactions. The restaurant industry will have to find a way to transition to a new norm without cutting the opportunities for the wait staff. The roles have to evolve.
Some restaurants with mostly senior adults as patrons have to combine traditional and modern wait staff. For example, since many of them know how to navigate a smartphone or tablet, they can place the order from the device. But instead of waiting for the conveyor belt to deliver the dishes or for a robot to take their orders, the wait staff will confirm the orders before sending it to the kitchen. This eliminates the common mistakes—such as wrongly inputting the order—that happen in these kinds of situations.
When it comes to payments, some restaurant-goers are still not comfortable transacting payments on their own. They may still need an actual person to process the payments for their orders. But in a post-pandemic world, the wait staff needs to follow safety protocols in transacting with the customers. The same goes for the diners. The protocols are in place even if they only have to deal with a tablet and a robot.
There is no stopping automation in the food business. The only question is how the market will react to it. Some customers still love the idea of dealing with a courteous wait staff when they are dining out. Others are so intimidated by technology that they would rather not try eating in an automated restaurant.
But in the future, restaurants with human wait staff is going to be the niche market. They’ll be a standout. These restaurants will offer something that automated restaurants cannot—human connection, interaction, and personalized services. For some, this will be a major factor in choosing where to dine in a post-pandemic world.
Technology has stepped up its game since the pandemic started in March this year. It will continue to hold the world together and bring forth the seamless integration of business and technology. But for it to survive, people must also come together not only to adapt to it but also to lead the way. After all, humans with the right technology have overcome a lot of things in these modern and challenging times.