As Jobs Disappear, Could Restaurants Become a Battleground For Pushback Against AI & Automation?


Last month, after 29 months straight of job gains, the number of total available restaurant jobs dropped. It wasn’t a huge dip – 800 jobs – but compared to the previous month’s gain of 24 thousand and monthly gains as high as 81 thousand at the beginning of the year, the dip was somewhat surprising, especially as restaurant sales have slowly but surely inched upwards throughout the year.

Could this be a temporary setback? Perhaps, but there’s also a possibility that it’s an early indicator of a long-term, potentially irreversible decline in the restaurant industry’s job market as emerging technologies come into play.

And by new technologies, I primarily mean automation and artificial intelligence. All one has to do is scan the headlines for the past 12 months to find that the restaurant industry has caught automation fever. Big chains ranging from Chipotle to Sweetgreen to McDonald’s are experimenting with ways to automate their restaurants.

And then there’s AI. Last month Wendy’s announced a new partnership with Google in which they are piloting a new generative AI solution called Wendy’s Fresh AI in a drive-thru in Columbus, Ohio. The company said this is the first of what could potentially be many locations that use the technology. Mcdonald’s has also been trialing AI technology, which its execs believe, in some ways, is better at handling customer interactions than humans.

“Humans sometimes forget to greet people, they forget, they make mistakes, they don’t hear as well,” Lucy Brady, McDonald’s chief digital customer engagement officer, told CNN. “A machine can actually have a consistent greeting and remain calm under pressure.”

This wave of new tech goes beyond robotic arms and simulated voices taking orders at the drive-thru. There’s been a recent surge – accelerated during the pandemic – in digital kiosks, mobile ordering apps, and QR code ordering at tables. These have resulted in an increased number of digital touchpoints designed to speed up the process and, to some extent, reduce reliance on human intervention.

It’s hard to fault the operators. A significant number of restaurant employees permanently exited the industry during the pandemic, and since then, operators have struggled to fill vacant positions. Despite offering higher wages and improved benefits, many open positions remain unfilled due to a lack of interest. If employees are hard to find, why not let technology take over?

Which brings us back to how we humans will be impacted by all this new technology. Workers are increasingly tasked with working alongside all this new tech, transforming job descriptions into something that can sound like working an IT help desk. Others find that technology is increasingly eating away at opportunities at the human connection aspect of the job they enjoy.

“Those points of connection get lost in mobile ordering,” said one former Starbucks barista. “So, it’s just like, ‘Here’s your order, bye.”

Then there’s the threat of job extinction as automation and AI take hold. While no big chains have deployed robotics or AI so widely that they’ve eliminated key positions in the front or back of house, it’s only a matter of time before early pilots become the primary engine of production. Sweetgreen has essentially proclaimed its new bowl-making robot is the future, and both Wendy’s and McDonald’s have hinted at broader applications of automation and AI.

As we teeter on the precipice of an automated and AI-powered restaurant industry, are we beginning to see signals of pushback stemming from job loss fears? There are subtle signs. When Chili’s showed off their trial of the Bear Robotics server in a video on Facebook last year, some commentators pushed back. “Quit trying to erase people!” wrote one. Another commented, “Another reason why I will never set foot inside of a Chili’s. You cannot replace a human in the hospitality industry.” Others are penning editorials saying that while operators may benefit from automation, workers and customers lose.

In certain instances, workers displaced by new technology have begun to retaliate. As detailed in our interview with restaurant operator Andrew Simmons, he struggled when a former employee who resisted the deployment of automation at his San Diego area pizza restaurant started making negative comments on social media and called in complaints to the local health department.

Are these initial pushbacks a sign of a larger anti-technology movement? That remains to be seen, but ignoring these early indications of a neo-luddite movement would be ill-advised, according to one professor.

“The various signals currently circulating in public discourse are not immediately obvious, nor are they specifically anti-technology or anti-progress,” wrote Sunil Manghani, a Professor of Theory, Practice & Critique at the University of Southampton and Fellow of the Alan Turing Institute for AI. “Yet, arguably, the signals are of a nascent sense of ‘protest’. Just as Hobsbawm reminds us, the Luddites were not opposed to machines in principle, but rather to those machines that were threatening their livelihoods and communities, we will likely start to see opposition not to software in principle, but various instances of software; opposition, then, to how and who deploy new technologies in the particular.”

Today resistance may manifest in an employee fighting back here or there or the occasional social media pushback against new automation. However, these intermittent signals could become the norm, especially if job numbers continue to decrease while more restaurants deploy robots and AI. Some studies say that over 80% of restaurant jobs could be handled by robotics, and some experts see millions of jobs being replaced through AI or automation within a decade.

And, of course, it’s not just restaurant jobs. Other lines of work, from creative to industrial, are threatened by new technology. And as more and more workers see unionization as the front line to a fight for more equitable pay, it’s also apparent – as evidenced by the Writers and Actors guild strike – the biggest fear about making a living in the future is whether or not employees will be replaced by technology.

Still, the restaurant industry, perhaps more than any other, is ripe for an automation and AI takeover, which is why I think that it could become the central battleground for the pushback in the form of an automation neo-luddite movement. Restaurant chains are the second biggest employer in the US, and two – Mcdonald’s and Yum Brands – are two of the top three employers in the country. Although Andrew Yang’s campaign warning of societal destabilization due to robotics and AI didn’t gain much traction in 2020, there’s a good chance he was ahead of his time, and we may see future politicians campaigning on an anti-automation platform with restaurants as one of the primary areas of focus.

Readers of The Spoon know we’re not anti-technology around here. In fact, we’ve covered just about every food robot out there and will continue to do so. But as we see more signals about potential pushback against the rise of automation and AI, I think it would be wise for the restaurant industry to begin to get ahead of this growing issue and think about how to balance new (and often necessary) technology with taking care of their employees.

Otherwise, they risk losing control of the narrative as more people organize to resist the impending AI and robot invasion.

Come hear experts talk about the impact of automation and AI on food jobs at The Food AI Summit on October 25th.

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