| LOS ANGELES/SAN FRANCISCO
LOS ANGELES/SAN FRANCISCO Oct 5 Clamshell
grills are making burger flipping obsolete at McDonald's, Johnny
Rockets and other burger chains. Digital kiosks, tabletop
tablets and mobile phones are taking orders at eateries like
Panera, Chili's Grill & Bar and Domino's. And at Silicon Valley
start-up Zume, robots are being programmed to take over pizza
Such labor-saving devices have been held out as
counterweights to efforts to raise the wages of the lowest paid
workers in the United States. But the early evidence suggests
robots and other forms of automation are merely reshaping the
work of people in food service. They are not - as they have in
banks, on factory floors and in other sectors - replacing them.
In spite of improvements in technology, minimum wage hikes
between 2000 and 2008 caused little immediate displacement of
workers by technology, especially in kitchens, according to a
study by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and
There were slightly more workers per restaurant in 2015 than
in 2001, according to data compiled for Reuters by the National
Restaurant Association, which opposes minimum wage hikes.
And the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected
leisure industry jobs, a broad category that includes
restaurants, will grow at 0.6 percent annually, keeping pace
with the national average through 2024.
Automation in the restaurant industry looms large in the
heated campaign to raise entry level pay to $15 an hour, more
than double what U.S. federal law now mandates.
Restaurants employ more low-wage workers than any other
industry, and their operators are among the most vocal opponents
of minimum wage hikes. Several executives have said major pay
hikes would force the fast-food industry to ramp up automation,
an investment that would cost thousands of jobs.
"The numbers just don't work for raising the minimum wage
this dramatically," said Andrew Puzder, CEO of Carl's Jr parent
CKE Restaurants Inc. "It will kill jobs."
Robotics researchers, restaurant executives, industrial
engineers, consultants and economists said, however, automation
in the restaurant and fast-food sectors is not as simple as
installing automatic tellers in banks or employing robots to
While any rise in the minimum wage puts pressure on
restaurant operators, they said a robot revolution in the $783
billion U.S. restaurant industry is still years away.
Sixteen U.S. states have increased their minimum wages this
year, and some, including California and New York, will move
over several years to $15 an hour. More states are considering
such measures, and Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary
Clinton has vowed to increase the federal minimum wage.
"It's not like we're at the precipice of a revolution where
the minimum wage goes up, and all these jobs disappear," said
Ken Goldberg, a professor of engineering and director of the
People and Robots Initiative at the University of California,
Many kitchen jobs still are too complex for robots, which
can't multitask and don't necessarily work safely with humans in
cramped spaces, experts said. While robots excel at complex
calculations and precise, repetitive tasks, they have difficulty
doing some things that are easily mastered by small children -
such as stacking blocks and sensing objects in space.
Moreover, most restaurants serve a range of menu items, each
of which might need numerous specialized forms of automation.
Sit-down restaurants have additional tasks that are hard to
automate, including setting and clearing tables, refilling
coffee cups and answering questions about what's on the menu.
APPETITE FOR RISK
Burger King attempted a potentially sweeping automation
overhaul in the 1980s. It designed machines to take orders;
broil, assemble and package hamburgers; cook and portion French
fries; and serve drinks. But new management came in and shelved
It's not clear why. Among the questions at the time was
whether the machines would be a "maintenance nightmare," but the
system was never broadly tested, recalled Nelson Marchioli, who
had a long career at Burger King before moving on to executive
roles at El Pollo Loco and Denny's.
"It's nothing that money and time can't fix, but how much
time and money do you want to invest?" Marchioli said.
Maintenance of automated systems can be costly and, when
they break down, bring operations to a screeching halt,
alienating customers, restaurant operators said.
In other industries, such as car plants, breakdowns can be
costly, but delays do not immediately frustrate consumers, in
the way a late pizza angers a hungry family.
Thomas Willis, an industrial engineer who was part of Burger
King's project, said many restaurant operators still don't have
the appetite for the kind of investment risks such efforts
"The fear of walking away from what works already is huge,"
he said. But Silicon Valley is nurturing an appetite for risk
and experimentation in the kitchen.
Momentum Machines has built a device to make gourmet burgers
"with no human interaction" and city permit data show it plans
to open a restaurant in San Francisco.
Zume Pizza, a Silicon Valley delivery start-up that has
raised $5.7 million in venture capital, said robots will be
building and baking pies by themselves within six months.
Already, a robot named Pepe squirts tomato sauce onto the
dough, and it is spread by another called Marta. After people
add cheese and toppings, robot Bruno gently moves the pizza from
a conveyor belt to an oven.
Co-founder Julia Collins said one of Zume's biggest
challenges is maintaining the perseverance it takes to overcome
technological difficulties. It took months, for instance, to get
Marta to spread the tomato sauce with enough precision to keep
it from splashing it off the pizza.
Zume's first robot workforce cost $3 million to develop, and
the company believes it will be able to start new locations for
between $750,000 and $1 million. Once fully automated, Collins
predicted, the pizzeria's labor costs will be about 14 percent
of revenue, about half the competition.
Domino's Pizza CEO Patrick Doyle said the worldwide chain
won't embrace the Zume model any time soon. At $250,000 to
$300,000, setting up a Domino's location is a fraction of Zume's
estimated launch costs. And, he said, customers like seeing
people in the kitchen.
"I don't know that people want their food out of a machine,"
Doyle said. "There is magic in a hand-crafted pizza."
With states and municipalities moving to raise wages,
restaurant owners and their suppliers may be more inclined to
invest in automation, said Juan Martinez, principal of
Profitality, an industrial engineering consulting firm for
restaurants. But single-task robots may not be a better option
than workers, he said.
"It is not 'if you build it, they will come,' since the
return on investment is not there yet," Martinez said. And
Johnny Rockets keeps a grill chef visible to customers, even
though its high-end burger cookers do most of the work.
Most of the movement toward technology in restaurants has
been at the front end. Eatsa, an updated automat, offers its
quinoa bowls at outlets that have largely eliminated
front-of-the-restaurant staff. Customers order on tablets and
pick up their food minutes later from small, frosted glass
Several chains are using kiosks and other technology that
allow orders to be placed more rapidly and efficiently. Such
systems can pay off in two or three years, according to an
analysis by Cornerstone Capital Group analyst Mike Shavel.
Domino's Pizza and Panera Bread Co, said
their custom-built ordering and payment systems have removed
bottlenecks at peak hours.
But the changes have not eliminated jobs; rather, they have
shifted them away from counters and into kitchens and delivery,
operators said. Digital ordering puts more pressure on the
kitchen and delivery staffs, said Panera CEO Ron Shaich.
"You better be able to deliver that food," he said.
(Editing by Sue Horton and Lisa Girion)