Comment: Damnit Jim! Where’s the waiter?

Food-service establishments are poised to go ‘Star Trek’ in the wake of COVID

COVID-19 amplified two challenges restaurant operators were already facing before the pandemic.

Canada’s first server-free restaurant opened its doors recently in Toronto.

Box’d is a fully automated restaurant designed for life during a global pandemic. An interesting concept indeed, but it does raise the issue of the role humans can, and should play, in the food industry. Being aware of the new risks, we now need to boldly move forward in order to navigate in the future.

To be clear, the food at Box’d is not made by robots. Humans are in the kitchen, but customers are expected to do the rest. Someone will greet you at the door and will provide assistance if needed, but that’s about it.

Customers order food in advance using a mobile app or through a digital kiosk at the restaurant, an ATM if you will. The customers will pick up their meals from a wall of digital cubbies and shelves that divide the dining area from the kitchen after being notified that their meals are ready. So yes, you can start your “Star Trek” jokes.

The menu is quite versatile. A mixture between lunch and dinner, and it can satisfy any diet, from vegans to omnivores. Options include mixing a protein, such as chicken, kafta, steak or portobello mushrooms, with a combination of grains, such as couscous, rice and lentils, with salad and hummus. The variety will satisfy most stomachs, without the COVID risks.

The business model is interesting. Expenses on staffing are focused on in the kitchen. Box’d hires more people so the spectre of eliminating positions is not really applicable. For patrons, they do not need to worry about tipping or service being slower. And most importantly for the public, not interacting with a server who may have been in contact with dozens of people during a shift, will bring peace of mind.

According to a recent poll released by Dalhousie’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab, 52 per cent of Canadians do not plan to visit a restaurant any time soon, due to the pandemic. That is certainly an issue for the food-service industry. So, a serverless environment could make a difference for some.

Fixed costs would increase by using more robots, but staff-related expenses would also become more predictable. Absenteeism and behavioural challenges would no longer be an issue. An operator may decide to operate a restaurant 24 hours without increasing costs, or barely.

More flexibility, less management, a dream world for operators. Expenses can also be amortized over time, which can provide a significant fiscal boost to entrepreneurs. So COVID-19 only made the use of automation in the food industry more appealing.

COVID-19 amplified two challenges restaurant operators were already facing before the pandemic. The first challenge was obtaining and retaining labour. Narrow profit margins are the second one. It can be very difficult to think beyond a few days in this business as the competition is always stiff, no matter the location.

Dehumanizing the restaurant sector may also impact the kitchen. Some restaurants in Europe and Asia have already automated their kitchens by using robots only. Most of them use vision-guided robots. Using automation in food service has clear advantages. No need to worry as much about cleanliness and food safety, and it allows the “back of the house” to be more consistent with quality, portions, and design. These features are often problematic in food service. Obviously, not all restaurant types are a natural fit for deploying vision-guided robots. Fine and casual dining establishments may need some human touch. However, fast-food establishments may represent the optimal environment.

There is one obvious question which needs to be addressed. Robots replacing human jobs has been naturally a contentious issue within the workplace, especially in the food industry as most jobs are occupied by people who are socio-economically underprivileged. However, amidst the global pandemic, calls for more risk mitigation by virtue of using robotized technologies are rising.

As social creatures, the death of the server is highly unlikely, but one can certainly see how humans can benefit from the use of robots to make the sector more robust, financially, and from a public health perspective.

Most importantly though, there is likely a sweet spot which can be struck between the use of robotics and the role of humans where creativity is concerned. Using both humans and robots together and allowing new ideas to merge with machines will make innovation more reliable and deterministic. Tests and quick tweaks can easily be implemented. Having robots cover repetitive actions can also be a blessing for restaurateurs who are desperate for time to apply their minds to new ideas.

It is a model worth pursuing for some restaurant operators, but only time will tell if this is what Canadians want as an experience, post-pandemic.

About the author


Sylvain Charlebois is senior director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab, and professor in food distribution policy, Dalhousie University.



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