Dammit Jim! Where’s the waiter?

The use of robots can make the restaurant sector more robust financially and more secure from a public health perspective

Sylvain CharleboisCanada’s first server-free restaurant has opened its doors in Toronto. Box’d is a fully-automated restaurant designed for life during a global pandemic.

It’s an interesting concept but it makes you wonder what role humans can and should play in the food industry. Being aware of the new risks, we need to boldly move forward to navigate in the future.

To be clear, the food at Box’d is not made by robots. Humans are in the kitchen but customers are expected to do the rest. Someone greets you at the door and provides assistance if needed, but that’s about it.

Customers order food in advance using a mobile app or through a digital kiosk at the restaurant. Customers then pick up their meals from a wall of shelves that divide the dining area from the kitchen, after being notified that their meals are ready.

So you can start your Star Trek jokes.

The menu is quite versatile and can satisfy any diet, from vegans to omnivores. Options include mixing a protein, such as chicken, kafta, steak or portobello mushrooms, with a combination of grains, such as couscous, rice and lentils, with salad and hummus.

Staffing expenses are focused on the kitchen. Patrons don’t need to worry about tipping or service being slower.

And, most importantly for the public, they don’t have to interact with a server who may have been in contact with dozens of people during a shift. That should bring piece of mind in a time of pandemic.

According to a recent poll released by Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab, 52 per cent of Canadians don’t plan to visit a restaurant anytime soon as a result of COVID-19. That’s certainly an issue for the food service industry. So a server-less environment could make a difference for some.

Fixed costs would increase by using more robots but staff expenses would also become more predictable. Absenteeism and behavioural challenges would  be less of an issue. An owner could operate a restaurant 24 hours a day without increasing most costs except in the kitchen.

More flexibility and less management creates a dreamworld for operators.

Expenses can also be amortized over time, which can provide a significant fiscal boost to entrepreneurs.

So the pandemic makes the use of automation in the food industry more appealing.

COVID-19 amplified two challenges restaurant operators already faced before the pandemic. The first is obtaining and retaining labour. Narrow profit margins are the second. It can be very difficult to think beyond a few days in this business since the competition is always stiff, no matter the location.

Dehumanizing the restaurant sector may also impact the kitchen. Some restaurants in Europe and Asia have automated their kitchens entirely. Most use vision-guided robots.

Using automation in food service has clear advantages. No need to worry as much about cleanliness and food safety. And it allows the ‘back of the house’ to be more consistent with quality, portions and design. These features are often problematic in food service.

Not all restaurant types are a natural fit for vision-guided robots. Fine and casual dining establishments may need some human touch. However, fast-food establishments may represent the optimal environment.

Robots replacing human jobs has naturally been a contentious issue within the workplace, especially in the food industry, where most jobs are held by people who are socio-economically underprivileged.

However, amidst the global pandemic, there are calls for more risk mitigation through the use of technology.

Since we’re social creatures, the death of the server is highly unlikely. But you can certainly see how the use of robots can make the sector more robust financially and more secure from a public health perspective.

There’s likely a sweet spot to be struck between using robotics and the role of humans where creativity is concerned. Using humans and robots together and allowing new ideas to merge with machines will make innovation more reliable and deterministic. Tests and quick tweaks can easily be implemented. Having robots cover repetitive actions can also be a blessing for restaurateurs who are desperate for the time to apply their minds to new ideas.

It’s a model worth pursuing for some restaurant operators. But only time will tell if this is what Canadians want as an experience, post-pandemic.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

Sylvain is a Troy Media Thought Leader. Why aren’t you?

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