The robots aren’t coming. They’re already here.
A look into the dining room at East Coast Pizza in Pueblo, Colorado, might seem like a scene pulled directly from The Jetsons, the futuristic 1980s’ era cartoon imagining a world of flying cars and space colonization.
At the New York-style pizzeria, a robot named Bella seats customers, delivers food to the table, and clears dirty dishes. Someday, East Coast Pizza founder Dominic Mannino hopes Bella will interact with guests, sharing jokes and discussing the weather.
East Coast Pizza’s science fiction-like turn isn’t quite the outlier it might immediately seem. In fact, automation is already commonplace in mainstream restaurant operations, albeit in more subtle ways compared to a front-of-the-house force like Bella.
Consider digital ordering, which sees customer-entered orders roll directly into the kitchen, or QR code menus, a pandemic-era hero eliminating the need for staff members to deliver a menu or take an order. Both solutions leverage readily available technology to automate daily tasks. It’s automation “lite,” though heartier solutions sit on the horizon.
Behind the automation uprising
While an innovative spirit is driving restaurant automation, the greatest tech doesn’t mean much if the marketplace isn’t interested. Count restaurant leaders interested. According to Lightspeed’s Global State of the Hospitality Industry report, half of U.S. restaurant operators plan to deploy automation technology within the next two to three years.
Amid the nation’s persistent labor shortage – a National Restaurant Association survey last November found four in five eateries understaffed – many restaurants are hunting for technology to support an overworked, high turnover, and conspicuously absent employee base. Automation solves many frustrating staffing problems, especially since a machine doesn’t call in sick or ghost its employer.
Though labor might be the primary reason pizzeria operators are exploring automation, such technologies spark other attention-grabbing benefits, from expediting service and improving product consistency to reducing waste and jumpstarting profitability.
The robots are here
At Pizza Expo last March, Clayton Wood and his colleagues welcomed operators into Booth #2203 and happily demonstrated Picnic, a pizza assembly station enabling one kitchen worker to produce up to 100 pizzas each hour.
With Picnic, a staff member places a sheet of dough on the system. That dough then moves down a conveyor belt where it is customized for size, shape and toppings. For a monthly fee, the company provides installation, training and support, Wood says.
“Customers don’t much care if a human made their pizza,” he claims.
A recent Deloitte survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers supports Wood’s premise. More than half of the survey’s respondents had no qualms about ordering food from a partially or fully automated kitchen.
While the company’s foremost aim is to improve labor productivity, Wood says the system also helps pizzerias address high order volumes while minimizing waste, boosting product consistency, and informing decision making in areas like purchasing and marketing since data on ingredient consumption and customer ordering patterns is also provided.
Picnic, of course, is far from the only emerging player in the restaurant automation space. There’s robotic technology eliminating the repetitive, if not unsafe, tasks that tire staff mentally and physically, such as dicing veggies or frying chicken wings.
“The thinking is, ‘Let’s automate the really tough jobs and keep the best employees out front,’” says Massimo Noja De Marco, a seventh-generation restaurateur and the CEO of Piestro.
A fully automated pizzeria that looks like a traditional vending machine, Piestro prepares, cooks, cuts and boxes a pizzeria’s original recipes before placing them into a smart locker for customers. Operators, Noja De Marco says, have been giddy at the machine’s prospects to deliver a consistent product in minutes, curtail food waste, and expand revenue since the white-label units can be branded and placed in venues like high-rise apartments or college dorms.
“We can’t build them fast enough,” Noja De Marco says.
And for pizzerias bemoaning driver shortages and third-party delivery’s outsized fees, how about a robotic version of Door Dash or Uber Eats? That’s Coco, a remote-controlled cooler on wheels. When a local delivery order is ready, a restaurant staff member places the order in the insulated cooler, Coco marketing specialist Erin Brown explains. Thereafter, one of Coco’s pilots remotely drive the robot to the customer – the radius extends about two miles – before returning to the restaurant to fulfill the next order.
Where automation can go – and how it gets there
At present, high-tech restaurant automation is in its infancy, but it is growing – and fast. Richtech Robotics, for example, boasts the Matradee, a bot that waits and buses tables, a robotic bartender named ADAM, and DUST-E, a floor-cleaning robot. Domino’s, meanwhile, tested driverless delivery in Houston last year and has experimented with drones as well.
For certain, there are challenges to mainstream adoption of many automated solutions. First, most automated tech requires some level of human involvement, which means the technology does not vanquish staffing issues. Picnic, for example, doesn’t replace a human; in fact, it requires humans to make every pizza. Second, many manufacturers of these tech-fueled solutions face their own supply chain issues with components and parts slowing production. There are cost considerations, of course, but Noja De Marco says those are minimal since savvy operators see automation’s numerous benefits.
“Cost is not the but,” he says, adding that Piestro charges a monthly fee rather than an oversized upfront investment so operators can immediately use the technology.
Brown, meanwhile, lists consumer trust and skepticism, government regulations and limits on operational capabilities, such as poor sidewalk infrastructure and narrow delivery radiuses, as some of Coco’s biggest challenges, while Picnic’s Wood calls the “human mind” the biggest hurdle to widespread adoption. Wood says operators are “future shocked” when they see Picnic in action, struggling to understand how the machine might exist in their restaurant. For those able to wrap their heads around the solution and other automated tech like it, though, he sees bright prospects.
“The future is unevenly distributed,” he says. “If you start to adapt to automation in near term, you’re getting on that learning curve that much sooner to stabilize your business and position it for long-term success.”
Daniel P. Smith Chicago-based writer has covered business issues and best practices for a variety of trade publications, newspapers, and magazines.