Member Forum by Juan Martinez

ISE's quarterly column for IISE members to share their perspectives (November 2018)

Hospitality is key for automation in foodservice

While reading the August issue of ISE magazine, I couldn't help but acknowledge Michael Hughes' "Putting the Brakes on Automation" and the subsequent featured article by Jeffrey K. Liker, "Don't Count Humans Out."

With more than 35 years of industrial engineering in foodservice expertise, I wanted to offer some insights on the question of automation in the foodservice sector. As I started writing, I saw the subsequent issue of ISE magazine that showed a fully automated burger-making machine ("Would You Like Fries with that Bot?"). I also visited a concept in Chicago where the customer ordered through a kiosk and picked up the food in a locker. Guests could not see the kitchen in the back. And this year's National Restaurant Show featured more automated devices than in previous years. While not quite mainstream, automation definitely has increased.

Let's start by looking at the definition of hospitality, one of the most important parts of foodservice. Google defines hospitality as "the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests and visitors or strangers." But can machines provide hospitality?

Can machines do the tasks that humans do? Can machines be as adaptable as humans? Are machines expensive to initially procure? How about ongoing costs? How much efficiency improvement and cost savings can a machine deliver? What kind of human interaction will the machine require? How about consistency of service and product? These are all questions one must ask when looking at automation in the foodservice industry.

There are customers that are willing to accept automation right now, including the concept shown in the September ISE publication. By the way, this concept is delivering a burger at a much lower price to the guests, providing a clear benefit. Perhaps some customers won't accept it if they see it, but if they don't, they likely would be fine with it as long as the product quality is equivalent. The reality is that a growing area in foodservice is online ordering, which takes the human out of the equation on this activity. One can say that this is pseudo automation.

The foodservice industry depends on manual labor, and this labor cost is going up. Not only is the minimum wage increasing, manager pay also goes up, as well as pay for other levels in the management chain. As labor rates go up, there is more room to afford automation.

Some argue that automation is taking away jobs, while others suggest that automation will drive a re-engineering or reallocation of jobs. For example, some brands take the automation gain of customers ordering and paying on their own and reallocate it into providing more hospitality, perhaps adding table service. Others may use a robot that can take the food to the table, enabling the server to have more interaction with the guests by not having to go to the back to get the food.

So what is the future for automation? It will be driven by the financial forces of the labor cost, the machine's ability to be nimble and flexible, the cost of acquisition and the ongoing cost, the quality and consistency that the machine can deliver, as well as how the automation is applied, among other factors.

Having offered the prior position, I would also suggest that the best automation is one that enhances the overall definition of hospitality for the guest and augments the employee's ability to deliver it; a marriage of both humans and machines. The challenge for the developer and the concept owner is that guests will have their own definition of what hospitality they want, and as such what automation they will be willing to accept.

Juan Martinez is a Ph.D., licensed P.E. and principal at Profitality, a foodservice consultancy. He is a senior member of IISE.