A boxy robot was spotted rolling down a San Francisco sidewalk on March 17, accompanied by two photographers as it completed a test drive. The two logos stickered to its side—Yelp and Eat24—leave little doubt of what the bot’s creators hope it will one day deliver.
Robots and interactive machines are cropping up all across food world. CaliBurger, a West Coast burger chain, has invested in a grill master robot named “Flippy.” A handful of restaurants in China have replaced their human waiters with mechanical ones. McDonald’s is testing out the use of touchscreen food-ordering kiosks.
Still, some say it will be several years before the restaurant industry becomes inundated with the kinds of robots that replace human laborers. And when it does, the automation of foot service will occur in strategic locations, said University of Notre Dame IT professor Timothy Carone in a conversation with The Motley Fool.
“Whether a restaurant becomes partially or fully automated should depend on its customers and locations,” Carone said. “Fast-food franchises located anywhere are finding its customers value automation. Restaurants at airports or similar locations that provide a captive audience but no loyalty except for brand loyalty will find automation necessary and valued by customers—faster is better.”
The dining room floor hasn’t been so friendly to some robot servers. Some mechanical servers in China wound up getting scrapped after restaurant owners grew frustrated over spilled drinks and food. Meanwhile, technology publication Fallible discovered March 17 that McDonald’s India delivery app, McDelivery, was leaking the customer data of more than 2.2 million people. The data included names, email addressed, phone numbers, home addresses, and social media profile links, according to the site (the app is still leaking data).
Still, automation is something consumers crave, according to Andy Puzder, the CEO of CKE Restaurants and former US secretary of labor nominee. Puzder argued as much in March 2016 Wall Street Journal (paywall) op-ed, writing, “This is particularly so among millennials who already do so much on smartphones and tablets,” he wrote. “I’ve watched people—young and old—waiting in line to use the touch screens while employees stand idle at the counter.”
If that kind of future makes you cringe, speak now or forever hold your peace. You may not be able to whine to your local bartender much longer. That person might soon be replaced by a robot, too.