Restaurants Adapt For Workforce With Fewer Humans, More Robots

restaurant robot

The restaurant labor shortage does not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. The underlying issues that have caused the crisis — low wages, poor benefits, unpredictable hours — remain largely in place, as restaurants struggle to come up with a financially feasible option to address would-be workers’ concerns. Now, reports are coming in that several Chick-fil-A restaurants are closing dining rooms, unable to meet demand.

“We, along with many businesses, are in the middle of a hiring crisis,” posted one location of the chain in Calera, Alabama to its Facebook page. “We are seeing far less job applicants, people not showing up for their interviews, or accepting a job only to resign within their first couple weeks. The restaurant industry has suffered from a hiring perspective during the pandemic and unfortunately Chick-fil-A is not immune to this labor shortage.”

The post went on to state that dining room and curbside orders would no longer be available, though the drive-thru channel would remain in operation. A couple of other Alabama locations — one in Bessemer and one in Madison — made similar announcements, and Newsweek reports that dining room closures have also been spotted in Elizabeth Town, Kentucky and in San Antonio, Texas.

“Chick-fil-A restaurant Team Members are a highly valued part of each restaurant and part of a team,” Chick-fil-A said in a statement emailed to PYMNTS. “Our local franchised Operators invest in their teams personally, offering mentorship, leadership development and opportunities.”

Of course, dining room closures are far from ideal, and they are certainly not a long-term solution. With an eye toward long-term labor trends, fast-casual salad chain Sweetgreen announced Tuesday (Aug. 24) that it has acquired Spyce, a Boston restaurant that prepares salads and bowls in its automated “Infinite Kitchen,” which assembles orders in three minutes. In terms of hardware, Spyce’s kitchen features a 450°F carbon steel plancha and a 300°F steamer.

“The Infinite Kitchen sears proteins until they’re caramelized … steams grains to al dente perfection, and measures dressings, sauces, and toppings for consistent flavor and crunch,” the company’s tech FAQ explains.

Sweetgreen declined a request to comment on how specifically it is interested in utilizing Spyce’s technologies, though salad chain Co-founder and CEO Jonathan Neman said in a statement Spyce’s technology will help “create healthy fast food at scale for the next generation.” Additionally, the news release states that the salad chain is considering ways to utilize Spyce’s automation tools to “generate faster and more consistent orders,” to switch keep staff focused on preparing the foods and on hospitality, and to expand its menu.

Kitchen automation has been accelerating in the recent past, with the rise in digital ordering creating demand. Robotic solutions have been emerging to cook orders, to vend meals, and even to serve tables at restaurants. Clayton Wood, CEO at robot-as-a-service (RaaS) company Picnic, explained to PYMNTS how part of the labor shortage, and consequently the need for more robotic solutions, results from the digital shift.

Read more: Kitchen Automation Turns Digital Order Volume From Challenge To Opportunity

New Robots Emerge To Automate Every Stage Of Restaurant Operations

“Digital orders means that you can get many, many more orders instantaneously than you could ever get with a walk-in, a call-in, or a sit-down customer base,” Wood said. “It’s an operational challenge … but it’s an opportunity for those who can get the right technology applied.”

Additionally, digital ordering has not only spurred demand for automated labor solutions, but also eliminated some of the barriers that may have come from skeptical consumers.

See also: Hyphen’s Restaurant Robotics Fend Off Delivery Giants

“I’d say partially automated or semi-automated food production — that’s going to be the norm within five to 10 years, no doubt,” Stephen Klein, co-founder and CEO and of kitchen automation company Hyphen, told PYMNTS in a recent interview. “If you’re ordering from your phone, and the only interaction you’re having with the restaurant is through that digital device, it really doesn’t matter who’s making your food, as long as it’s fresh, fast and consistent.”