It’s lunchtime. You approach a set of glass doors and they swing open before you reach for the handles. The host stand is empty, but a kind, slightly stiff voice radiates from it. “Welcome! How many will be dining today?” You answer too loudly toward no one. “Right this way,” the voice says. A series of blinking arrows light the floor, leading you to a free table in the corner. There, a tablet beckons you to order. You select a house-recipe lasagna. In seconds, a vacuum tube system lowers from the ceiling and dispenses a nearly too-perfect portion. You chow down and wonder if it’s still appropriate to tip. This is the future many envision when faced with the possibility of AI in restaurants. 

In reality, AI has been a useful tool in the restaurant industry for years. From tracking customer behaviors and predicting sales to handling online orders and deliveries, AI and machine learning serve to fill in gaps rather than replace human workers. The robot uprising may be more secretarial than sinister. Given that the global AI market is predicted to hit a market value of $190.61 billion by 2025, operators must evaluate the benefits and shortcomings of available tech before they invite their own Short Circuit into the kitchen. 

AI Meets 2022

Understanding the efficiency of AI and machine learning begins with understanding the current climate of the restaurant industry. More than 2 years after the start of the COVID pandemic, 4 in 10 restaurants report they still aren’t running at full capacity. Of those, 7 in 10 cite staff shortages as the primary reason. Customers have adjusted by placing high importance on delivery and takeout options, with USDA reporting 54% of adults saying it is essential to the way they live. According to the same report, wholesale food prices have increased 16.3% while menu prices have increased 7.6%. All of this amounts to more pressure and tighter circumstances than ever before. 

It comes as no surprise that operators are responding by opening the door to automation. In fact, 50% are planning to implement new technology in the next 2-3 years. However, uses are usually limited to tasks like answering phone calls, providing data driven insights and predictions, or assisting with menu engineering. However, some AI blends man and machine more directly. 

Flippy, The AI Chef

A restaurant by the name of Wings and Rings recently introduced a first-of-its-kind robotic chef. This mechanical trailblazer, called “Lil Flip” or “Flippy” by workers, uses cameras to identify foods, place them in the appropriate fryer baskets, and remove them after the designated time. Though coworkers were originally apprehensive when it came to Flippy, they reportedly grew quite affectionate. The giant, robotic arm can sleep soundly as one of the crew. When asked about this technology update, manager William Stonebrought had this to say: 

 “Amid the labor crisis, is it helping solve some of those efficiencies back there? Absolutely. But it still takes a designated person to run that machine.” 

Service With a Smile or a Screen

Another restaurant company, Checkers and Rally’s, moved AI from Flippy’s back-of-the-house role to a customer-facing position when they tested the effectiveness of utilizing AI to gather and input orders. The initial results were positive, including higher efficiency and an upselling rate of 100% among the benefits. While it also eased the strain of the labor shortage, it is unclear whether customers showed preference one way or the other. 

Findings from USDA suggest restaurants have a sweet spot with technology. 52% of adults, while open to more technology, feel there is currently just the right amount. The question remains: are the benefits of AI worth the risk of artificializing the human connection at the heart of the hospitality industry? 

A Bot for Your Buck

There’s also the matter of the upfront cost of such solutions. In 2020, companies paid anywhere between $0 and $40,000 per year for third-party AI software while custom solutions ran between $6,000 and $300,000. These tactics boast increased sales, efficiency, and, most importantly, time for their human counterparts, but could run counter to consumer needs. The combination of high dollar, high risk is harder to swallow. Luckily, the waters of AI run wide and there’s no requirement to dive into the deep end. 

The Future Today

That being said, it appears the empty restaurant days of a dystopian future are not ahead of us. Rather, the days of wasted time and labor on remedial tasks and dust-collecting data are behind you if you’re able to invest in the risk. One thing is clear: restaurants have risen out of their pen and paper era into the age of tech. Whether it’s a new POS system or an AI waiter roaming the floor, tech and hospitality are collaborating on the future. How this will change consumer and operator experiences is yet to be seen, but clever operators will be keeping a watchful eye.

How will you balance innovation and tradition?