Technology can turn the tide on labor shortages in fast food

You’ve probably heard of the pessimistic predictions of crippling labor shortages exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic at restaurants across the country. Between social distancing, masking guidelines and health concerns, COVID-19 is largely to blame for the “Big resignationwhich has affected the workforce in sectors far beyond the restaurant business, from retail to manufacturing, healthcare and technology.

But this societal shift wrought by the global pandemic isn’t the full story of labor issues at fast food restaurants, where high turnover has always been a chronic problem for owners. The work can be dirty, dangerous and grueling, with long rehearsal hours often the norm. This is the most difficult position to fill and keep for restaurateurs.

As a result, the still-high restaurant turnover rate hit a whopping 130.7% in 2020, up from a still-far-fetched 78.9% in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Undoubtedly, the many complications caused by the pandemic play an ongoing role in the labor shortage. The National Restaurant Association says restaurant industry sales were just $659 billion in 2020, $240 billion less than expected. They also reported 12.5 million catering employees at the end of 2020, 3.1 million fewer workers than expected.

Despite high employee replacement and training costs, could it be that high turnover is just part of business in the restaurant world, with or without a global pandemic? What if there was a better way to make certain aspects of restaurant work more enjoyable, dare I say more innovative for restaurateurs and more rewarding for employees?

A technological “tipping point” for fast food chains took decades. The pandemic has simply prompted the industry to act now.

It turns out that very few people want to stand in front of a hot fryer splattered with oil all day for minimum wage, whether or not there’s a raging global health crisis. This has left national chains looking for ways to automate and boost efficiency and consistency.

Have you been to a national fast food chain recently? Digital menu boards and bright touchscreens all seem to point to tech-embracing channels, but these are just surface-level solutions that enable a better front-of-house customer experience. In fact, when it comes to fulfilling orders, most kitchens use the same technology that has been around for 30-40 years (think black and white screens with printed tickets) – where quality, consistency and speed of food preparation suffer on a daily basis. The industry has truly reached a boiling point for change.

So what about robots? Well, for starters, they gladly take on often dangerous and tedious work. Second, they are very affordable, surprisingly affordable. Third, people really enjoy working with bots because it frees them up to make more valuable contributions.

This is exactly why we do what we do at Miso Robotics. You may have heard of Flippy, our robotic kitchen assistant, who now works shifts at fast-food chains (like White Castle) where he dutifully cooks piles of sliders and fries for the hungry masses. This is just one example of the sea change that is rewiring the fast food industry with artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics.

Robots in the kitchen are actually good for labor. As we have seen in automobile production and more recently, computer programming, these technologies actually increase worker safety and boost human productivity when used well. In fact, the White Castle team really enjoys working alongside Flippy, so much so that they rank Flippy and vote for recognition the same way they do their human colleagues.

Filled with computer vision, thermal cameras, and processors that connect it to the cloud, Flippy can identify objects, monitor cooking times, and track incoming burger and fries orders while switching between cooking tools. Robots learn over time, and we expect Flippy to be cooking up many more fast food favorites soon.

The fact is, many food chains’ profits have skyrocketed during the pandemic as customers avoided venturing outside and simply ordered food on their favorite app, having it delivered to their front door. . Even with improvements in hiring, training, and compensation to attract and retain employees in the restaurant business, there are some tasks where automation can really help fill the gap.

My life revolves around how technology can be applied to perform those tedious and dangerous tasks in the kitchen through the fusion of artificial intelligence, robotics and machine learning. We’ve finally reached the point where this technology is poised to play a much bigger role in the future of fast food.

Every day, I receive inquiries from leaders of national and regional fast food chains asking how we can help innovate their kitchens. The demand has, quite frankly, been overwhelming, and we’re building products as fast as we can for a starving industry.

Mike Bell is the CEO of Miso Robotics, setting the company’s overall strategic direction and overseeing the scope of operations. A seasoned technology executive and entrepreneur for more than 25 years, he has held leadership positions at early-stage tech startups including, Encore, and most recently Ordermark, where he was COO. Mike’s expertise is in scaling emerging businesses and transforming them into commercially viable, fast-growing organizations. Mike graduated from the University of Iowa.

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