Technology is changing restaurants for the better, but we can’t lose the human touch

With new and innovative technology finding its way into many areas of the restaurant industry, it hasn’t taken long for conversation to start around the possibility of robot-run food establishments, staffed entirely by intelligent machines. It’s a futuristic, sci-fi image that may appeal to some, but is it even realistic and, more importantly, is this what consumers really want?

Technology is already being used to streamline order taking and payments, with advanced electronic point-of-sale (POS) systems, self-order kiosks, tableside tablets, and mobile ordering apps (such as those used by Wagamama and Wetherspoons) helping to save time, and put control back into the hands of the customer. We anticipate adoption rates of kiosk technology in particular will increase significantly over the next five years: in fact, the global market is projected to reach a value of $30.8 billion by 2024, according to Transparency Market Research.

Technology also has its place in the world of food preparation, where often a kitchen display system is used to help automate the process, giving chefs clearer instructions and cooking times than ever before. They are better able to handle a large number of orders simultaneously, while ensuring the right dishes are delivered to the right tables, at the right time – and at the right temperature.

Taking it a step further are actual robots that can perform basic food prep tasks, like the much-publicised ‘Flippy’. Launched in March at a Caliburger in the US, the burger-flipping robot is capable of grilling 150 burgers per hour, reacting to sensors that monitor the meat from raw to safely cooked. Food safety can certainly be improved with help from these intelligent devices, with technology offering more accurate temperature control and the ability to ensure equipment is properly sanitised to avoid outbreaks of illnesses like E. coli and salmonella.

But the idea that technology could or should ever completely replace restaurant staff is unrealistic at best, and incredibly damaging to the industry at worst.

For starters, the technology is still a long way off. Even with the example of Flippy, human colleagues still have to put the raw burgers onto the grill, add the toppings, wrap them up and deliver them to customers. It would be getting ahead of ourselves to imply this brings us close to completely replacing human workers at fast-food restaurants.

Importantly, technology also can’t think on its feet in the same way a human can, and so it is unable to address specific customer issues, or ensure that a personalised order is properly delivered. This is true of even some of the most intelligent systems. Without a degree of staff engagement, customers could lose the freedom to fully tailor an order to their taste or, crucially, to avoid allergens.

There’s really no denying the importance of that human touch. Even the owners of Spyce, a Boston-based restaurant known for its huge automated kitchen, where ingredients are piped from fridges, into woks and into their bowls before humans even come into contact with the dishes, recognise that presentation and personalisation still play in important part.

And the type of restaurant makes a huge difference when it comes to the use of technology. Greater levels of automation make more sense in quick-service restaurants where the emphasis is on fast food, but for restaurants that are mid-market and above, the appeal to customers is often more about having an authentic experience, with more of an emphasis on hospitality than technology. Similarly, while technology has improved leaps and bounds in recent years, some aspects of home delivery still need work, and there is a role for human staff to play in coordinating the process to make it as smooth as possible.

There is also new technology being developed by restaurants that may not necessarily interfere with day-to-day staff roles, such as the AI technology McDonald’s has recently invested in, which aims to predict customer orders and adapt menus based on such factors as weather, location and time of day.

As it stands, it makes sense to invest in new technology in key operational areas to help accelerate table turn, provide a better customer experience, and – where necessary – cut labour costs, but the idea of replacing staff completely with technology is unrealistic, and in some cases, undesirable.

In short, the current conversation should be reframed to focus on which areas of the restaurant experience can and should be automated, and which ones should be left alone to ensure the “human touch” is granted the value and respect it very much still needs.