Fast Food's Robotic Revolution
Entrepreneur|June 2017

When will robots finally take over the fast-food business?

Elizabeth G. Dunn

It’s 1 P.M. in New York City, and the delis and fast-casual joints that line the streets of midtown are devolving into loud, heaving scrums of office workers rattling off orders for turkey on rye, and kale salads with dressing on the side, and Diet Cokes, no ice.

Which is why when I walk into Eatsa on Madison Avenue the first thing I notice is the silence. Some of the customers streaming in approach a phalanx of iPad kiosks; others proceed directly to the far end of the restaurant, where orders materialize within a wall of cubbies that bring to mind food replicators out of Star Trek. Most breeze in and out in less than two minutes without having so much as paused their podcasts. Two red-shirted Eatsa employees mill around, awaiting questions that never come.

Eatsa debuted in 2015 with a menu of customizable quinoa bowls, in flavors like No Worry Curry and Hummus & Falafel, and has since expanded into soups, noodles, and salads at some of its seven locations. The concept is a 21st-century automat. Orders are placed in advance through the store’s app or tapped into a kiosk on-site but cannot be dictated to an actual human. Cash is not accepted. Utensils and napkins emerge through holes in the wall. It’s hard not to walk away feeling a certain electric sensation of having met the future head-on, like your first time cruising through an E-ZPass lane and wondering whether human beings are, at last, on the verge of obsolescence.

Eatsa sits on the bleeding edge of the automation spectrum, but the trends embodied there are real, and growing, especially among large quick-service franchises. Last year, more than half of Domino’s orders in the U.S. originated from digital platforms, including Apple Watch, Google Home, Amazon Echo, and Facebook Messenger. About half of Pizza Hut’s orders are now digital. Taco Bell, Dunkin’ Donuts, and KFC all have their own order-and-pay mobile apps, too. According to the market research firm Business Intelligence, mobile order-ahead will account for around 10 percent of all quick-service-restaurant sales by 2020.

This spring, McDonald’s announced not only that mobile order-and-pay technology would be accepted at 20,000 restaurants by the end of 2017 but that by 2020, most of its 14,000 U.S. restaurants would be outfitted with the “Experience of the Future,” an ambitious upgrade—estimated to cost $100,000 to a few hundred thousand per store—that includes kiosk ordering. Wendy’s has said it will install 1,000 kiosks in stores this year.

Fast-food franchises often get a bad rap for being slow to change, but this time they find themselves in the unique position of being among the first in the food-service realm to make a major investment in automation. As a result, the consensus view among industry leaders and analysts has become that quick-service dining is heading toward a largely automated future. In the heat of the “Fight for $15” movement, which pushed for higher wages for fast-food workers, former Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr. CEO and one-time labor secretary nominee Andrew Puzder made no secret of his enthusiasm for the idea of installing machines in place of human workers. According to a McKinsey & Company analysis, 73 percent of the activities workers perform in food service “have the potential for automation.” A 2013 study out of Oxford University gave fast-food preparation and service a 92 percent probability of becoming automated, albeit over an unspecified period. Yum! Brands CEO Greg Creed says automation will replace fast-food workers within a decade.

Naturally, all this has conjured imagined scenarios involving mass unemployment and robot overlords, but I wanted to see how much actual progress has been made to date toward an automated future for the industry. Is the fully human-free fast-food restaurant imminent or still theoretical? How will customers respond? What will workers do? What will it mean for the bottom lines of franchisees? And is there really a robot that makes only crab bisque? I went to find out.

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