fast food, fast food industry, automation in the fast food industry, automation in takeout

Automation in the takeout industry: How will it affect workers?

THAT Burger Spot!, a small chain with four locations based in Jonesboro, Georgia, faced a staffing dilemma. The restaurant had a slightly complicated menu that offered plenty of customisation options. This made taking phone orders lengthy and often error-prone. 

Management was looking for a solution, which they found in Grubbrr – a company that sells free-standing kiosks capable of handling in-store and online orders. With an initial investment equivalent to one annual salary, the restaurant was able to address its staffing issue. Beyond this, it noticed significant financial gains in average sales per labour hour.

It seems that the automation kiosk may have successfully and profitably replaced a human fast-food worker. Interestingly, many aspects of fast-food automation can assist human workers to work more efficiently. 

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What does automation in fast food look like?

Automation in the fast food industry can be an effective pathway toward ensuring operational efficiencies and reducing costs. Notably, the global revenue for the food industry robotics market is estimated to reach $0.41 billion in 2023 and grow at a rate of 4.46% per annum. 

The numbers indicate that automation in the fast food industry has versatile applications, which contributed to its growing popularity.

Automation in the kitchen

The kitchen is one of the most sensitive operational areas where several restaurants have already started leveraging automation. Here are some notable trends:

  • Adoption of robotic systems: Many chains are integrating robotic grills and other automated cooking appliances to ensure consistency, speed up food preparation, and minimise human error. For example, Chipotle has rolled out a robotic prototype to cut and peel avocados, effectively reducing the prep time by 50%.
  • Smart appliances: Using AI-enabled and programmable appliances that can precisely control cooking times and temperatures can help ensure consistent food quality. Starbucks, for instance, is deploying a coffee-making machine called the Siren System. This has allowed the chain to substantially reduce the preparation time for certain beverages.
  • Automated order and prep systems: Automated order processing systems are among the earliest trends in the fast food industry. For example, Domino’s has engaged in several automation projects, including the development of an automated pizza prep device in partnership with a food automation startup.
  • Fully autonomous kitchen: With advances in modern IoT devices and AI-powered sensors, it is now possible to automate many appliances in a kitchen, from ovens and freezers to washing and cleaning systems. Hyper Robotics is working on building a prototype for a 40-feet fully autonomous kitchen. Upon completion, it will be able to run from start to finish without any human intervention. 

Automation in the serving areas

Automation in serving areas is optimising the order and payment processes in fast-food establishments. Some key implementations include:

  • Self-service kiosks enable customers to browse the menu, customise orders, and pay – reducing the need for staffed registers.
  • Digital ordering systems allow for orders to be placed via smartphones or tablets, improving accuracy and efficiency. Presto, an AI voice assistant, reported 95% accuracy with fast-food order handling
  • Automated payment systems speed up a restaurant’s checkout process by quickly processing card or mobile payments.
  • Queue management systems use technology to manage crowd flow and reduce wait times, enhancing customer satisfaction.
  • Smart tray return systems handle tray returns and contribute to a cleaner and well-organised serving area.

Automation for takeaway options

The worldwide online food delivery market reached an estimated value of $770 billion in 2022. When discussing automation in fast food, augmented takeaway is inevitable. Restaurants have already implemented many automation methods to improve the takeaway systems, such as: 

  • GPS-enabled mobile apps send a notification to restaurants confirming that the customer is nearby or waiting at the parking lot. 
  • AI-driven forecasting employs artificial intelligence that analyses the customer’s previous order history and purchasing behaviour to predict order volumes ensuring a smoother operation during peak hours. For example, McDonald’s implemented a license plate scanning system to predict orders. 
  • Smart lockers can allow customers to pick up their orders without any human contact, minimising wait time even further. 

What is the potential of automation in fast food?

While the fast food industry has embraced automation technologies across many operational areas, we could expect to see more innovative automation tools and procedures in the future. Some of those include: 

Packaging

The future of packaging in fast food could see more advanced automated packaging systems. For instance:

  • Smart packaging machines are capable of adjusting packaging size based on the order, reducing material wastage.
  • The integration of AI monitors and manages packaging inventories, ensuring optimum supply levels and reducing overstocking costs.

Cooking

Innovations in cooking automation can potentially redefine the fast food industry’s efficiency and consistency. Some futuristic developments could include:

  • Advanced robotic chefs equipped with machine learning to continuously improve cooking processes and adapt to new recipes.
  • Real-time monitoring and adjustment of cooking parameters through AI, ensuring the highest quality of food preparation even during the busiest hours.

Payment Handling

Innovations to facilitate automated payment handling could include:

  • Biometric payment systems allow customers to pay through fingerprint or facial recognition.
  • Blockchain-based payment systems ensure highly secure and transparent transactions, reducing the risks of fraud.

What could this mean for fast food workers and businesses?

While automation in the fast food industry signals a paradigm shift in how businesses conduct operations, what does it mean for workers? 

  • Shift in focus: Automation can significantly free up fast food workers from repetitive tasks. Instead, they can dedicate themselves more to customer-centric activities or maintaining the system. 
  • More output: Workers can add more value to the restaurant as automation and modern tools help improve their efficiency.
  • Job displacement concerns: Automation has made it possible for many fast food chains to automate their entry-level roles. This could necessitate retraining or upskilling programmes to help workers transition into new roles within or outside the fast-food sector.
  • New job roles: While restaurants can use automation to take over some roles, many of these systems and tools still need human supervision to ensure smooth operations. Moreover, workers may also leverage modern tools to provide superior customer service.   

Automation brings forth the promise of refined operational processes – from the kitchen where meals are prepared to the serving areas where interactions with customers occur, and extending to the takeaway services which have become an integral part of the fast-food business model.

For the workforce, the journey towards a highly automated environment could be mixed with opportunities and challenges. While some jobs may become obsolete, new roles will emerge, necessitating a culture of continuous learning and adaptation.