Ask for a roast beef sandwich at an Arby’s drive-through in the Inland Empire and you may be talking to Tori — an artificially intelligent voice assistant that will take your order and send it to the line cooks.
“It doesn’t call sick,” says Amir Siddiqi, whose family installed the AI voice at its Arby’s franchise this year in Ontario. “It doesn’t get corona. And the reliability of it is great.”
Restaurants have become the most visible robot adopters. In late August, for instance, the salad chain Sweetgreen announced it was buying kitchen robotics startup Spyce, which makes a machine that cooks up vegetables and grains and spouts them into bowls.
It’s not just robots, either — software and AI-powered services are on the rise as well. Starbucks has been automating the behind-the-scenes work of keeping track of a store’s inventory. More stores have moved to self-checkout.
Scott Lawton, CEO and Co-founder of restaurant chain Bartaco, was having trouble last fall getting servers to return to his restaurants when they reopened during the pandemic. So he decided to do without them. With the help of a software firm, his company developed an online ordering and payment system that customers could use over their phones. Diners now simply scan a barcode at the center of each table to access a menu and order their food without waiting for a server. Workers bring food and drinks to their tables. And when they’re done eating, customers pay over their phones (pictured) and leave.
The innovation has shaved the number of staff, but workers aren’t necessarily worse off. Each Bartaco location — there are 21 — now has as many as eight assistant managers, roughly double the pre-pandemic total. Many are former servers, and they roam among the tables to make sure everyone has what they need. They are paid annual salaries starting at $55,000 rather than hourly wages.
Tips are now shared among all the other employees, including dishwashers, who now typically earn $20 an hour or more, far higher than their pre-pandemic pay. “We don’t have the labor shortages that you’re reading about on the news,” Lawton said.
If not for the pandemic, Amir Siddiqi probably wouldn’t have bothered investing in new technology that could alienate existing employees and some customers. But it has gone smoothly, he says: “Basically, there are fewer people needed but those folks are now working in the kitchen and other areas.”