After months of surviving with a skeleton crew at Circle House Coffee in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Stephen Tulloch’s newest drive-thru worker is none other than a swinging robotic arm. The robot has increased efficiency, raised morale — and even lured new servers to the coffeehouse.
A metal-jointed arm that swings out to cars in the drive-thru, Tulloch’s Tully Arm can process credit cards and even spritzes free sanitizer into drivers’ hands. Freed from handling transactions, Circle House staff members have more time to mix coffee drinks, fix breakfast sandwiches and schmooze with customers. Which brings in more tips.
“Last month’s tips were roughly $3,000 and this month’s tips are already at $7,200,” says Tulloch, who started using the Tully Arm prototype in late October. “We were in really bad, touch-and-go shape in the fall, and we closed early. Now everyone wants more hours because of the arm out that window.”
Circle House Coffee isn’t the only restaurant testing automation. As communities brace for the omicron unknown, more restaurants are booting up robots to gird themselves against another serious problem: a persistent labor squeeze that isn’t slowing down.
A survey of 13,659 wage earners by the online job marketplace Joblist suggests that 58% of U.S. restaurant and hotel employees plan to quit after the New Year. About 6% of leisure and hospitality workers called it quits in October, according to new data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Now we have a perfect storm,” says Andrew Moreo, a hospitality management professor at Florida International University. “Employees worked harder during the holidays for lower wages, and now you’re throwing the omicron variant on top of it. We’re going to see another bit of a downward spiral in service and a deeper labor shortage.”
It’s no wonder restaurants have added robo-coworkers to their ranks, Moreo says. Robots are pandemic-proof, they never call in sick, ask for minimum wage or take work breaks, which can help offset the historic number of Americans quitting their jobs.
“We’ll see more employers using technology to replace more of the task-heavy processes, like bussing and serving,” Moreo says. “But what if the robot falls over and spills food? What happens then? You still need a human problem solver.”
BurgerFi has a new employee in Patty the Robot. The robo-busser, which resembles a rolling bookshelf with trays and a touch screen, uses motion-sensing lidar cameras to move around the restaurant, and to pick up and deliver burger orders, says Karl Goodhew, chief technology officer of BurgerFi.
Lidar is the same technology Tesla’s self-driving cars use, Goodhew says, and it fetches a hefty price tag: $20,000 per Patty. But that’s nothing compared to what the Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Florida-based hamburger chain paid in labor and related expenses linked to COVID-19 staff shortages. BurgerFi spent $2.5 million between July and September, a $700,000 jump over the same period last year, according to its latest quarterly report.
For now, Patty won’t talk to customers unless a guest blocks its path. “It says something like, ‘Please step out of the way. I don’t want to get fired. I have a job to do,’ ” Goodhew says.
Goodhew says Patty the Robot assists but is hardly sophisticated enough to replace human workers. “You need a human to bring value to the dining experience,” he says. Instead, while Patty is playing food runner, employees “can spend that extra 30 seconds working on a hand-blended shake. This makes the employees more efficient.”
At Circle House Coffee, the Tully Arm, which costs about $3,000, practically pays for itself, Tulloch says. In November, he added a second Tully Arm to his new Circle House location in Oakland Park, Florida.
Since the summer, Boca Raton, Florida-based company Grubbrr has put their self-service kiosk software inside restaurant chains including Bolay, Just Baked, McAllister’s Deli and BurgerFi. The kiosks, planted inside dining rooms, take food and drink orders and excel in the art of the upsell, says Jarrett Nasca, Grubbrr’s chief revenue officer.
“If you’re ordering a salad, it will ask if you want a side fruit cup, for example,” says Nasca, whose company charges $3,000 to $6,000 for the kiosk, plus $199 per month for the software. “If you ordered nachos and drinks, our system routes the nacho order to that prep station, drinks to the drink station, and so on, so the restaurant is more efficient.”
If there’s a catch with automation, Moreo adds, it’s that robot helpers may be too cost-prohibitive for the average mom-and-pop. The cost-saving benefits that robots supposedly bring to restaurants are so new it is also hard to measure their worth.
“We don’t really know if any of this is working, if customers are being upsold, if they’re spending more or tipping more, even if they’re liking robots or just tolerating them,” Moreo says. “People are trying knee-jerk things in the name of health and safety, to stay in the black, and to keep humans employed.”