With the hospitality industry facing an unprecedented labour shortage, is automation the answer? 

Even before the disruption of a global pandemic, staff-less and automated technologies were throwing restaurant and bar spaces into a state of flux. Now, at a time when the hospitality industry is navigating the waters of a significant labour shortage, these systems look certain to be more than a passing fad. Most recently, the once-novel prospect of service robotics has taken steps to more realistic and functional territory. The newly launched robot bartender aboard MSC Cruise’s Virtuosa flagship – billed as an ‘integrated bar and entertainment experience’ complete with holograms and digital art along the 12-seat bar – joins the humanoid waiters at Tokyo’s Dawn Avatar Robot Cafe and automated chefs at Illinois’ Naperville Food Court, bringing to fruition a futuristic foodie vision that has been in the making since the 1980s. With the   industry’s talent supply chain in disarray, restaurateurs will be increasingly likely to look at such technologies as a solution. 

To find out what this means for both spatial design and customer experiences, we spoke to the CEOs of three companies operating within different arms of the industry. Barney Wragg, co-founder of Karakuri, is the driving force behind a pair of automated food preparation and service robots; Josh Goodman heads up Pourmybeer – a self-pour system with over 8,000 taps in 24 countries; and Christian Mouysset, co-founder of Tenzo, created the eponymous web and mobile app to simplify restaurant business intelligence and sales forecasting. Here’s what they have to say.

Karakuri’s robots aim to make restaurants less susceptible to fluctuations in staffing, while helping brands meet consumers’ increasing demand for personalization.

Rise of the robots 

Barney Wragg: Automation allows restaurant designers greater flexibility. The traditional barrier between server, kitchen and customer can be reimagined and re-scoped. Weve already seen how touchscreen and app ordering is altering the design of restaurants, and further automation in the preparation and service of food will have similar impacts on the kitchen and dining room.

There are two forces at play when you look at the customer journey through a restaurant space: what can I eat and how can I get it? Technology will play a critical role in how restaurants adjust and change the way they interact with customers. Firstly, 'What can I eat?' is a very personal choice and, as such, there is growing demand for personalized food options. Research tells us that almost two-thirds of consumers globally follow a diet that limits or prohibits consumption of some foods or ingredients. Whether you have a food intolerance or are following a diet plan, systems like Karakuri can personalize any meal using its robots to dispense the exact ingredients and quantities into that dish. 

The next question is: 'How can I get it?' This is ultimately about convenience and the speed and ease with which your customers can get their meals. Technology, and automation in particular, means that each customer is a few clicks away from a meal. Simplistically this means less wait time and more flexibility in when your food is going to be ready.

The move to automation in the hospitality sector is a positive one and the scaremongering of loss of the human element is not entirely valid. Robots are not about to take our jobs. They address a need in a sector where we often see an incredible shortage and high turnover of staff and poor efficiencies in the way kitchens and restaurants are run. The events of the past year have thrown up challenges for the hospitality industries, including the need to re-engineer the way hospitality businesses interact with customers. Players are having to find new ways to minimize human contact and technology innovation is key to making it happen. 

Pourmybeer’s founder claims removing the bar can save proprietors 50-70 per cent on their labour costs.

Self-starters 

Josh Goodman: Our technology will mean more space for more patrons with less dependency on staff to do manual processes. If you take a traditional bar venue and take out the physical bar, you've added about 20 per cent more space. Combined with outdoor space, you can rely on a smaller footprint of a building which will lower your rent by 20 per cent and decrease your labor by roughly 50-70 per cent, while gaining the efficiency of allowing the guests to pour their own drinks. 

Regarding the customer journey: Have you ever used an EZ-pass on the highway? Do you remember the last time you went through and saw a line of ten or 20 waiting to pay their toll manually? Once you experience self-pour, that's how you'll view the traditional dispensing experience.  

Meanwhile, humans are and will always be the main ingredient in hospitality. Humans should interact with humans, but humans don’t have to enter sales into a POS and pour beer or wine, or cocktails. By adding our technology to the equation, guests can get what they want as quickly as they want it and staff can focus on helping them have a great experience by discussing what's on tap, suggesting they sample certain taps and refreshing their glasses. 

Driven by data

Christian Mouysset: A better understanding of where sales are coming from (i.e., channel mix) allows restaurateurs to better utilize their spaces. If you know that you get 50 per cent of orders through delivery apps and 50 per cent through eat-in, then having dedicated order preparation spaces specifically for deliveries allows your team to work far more efficiently and stops confusing mix-ups. 

With mobile-first technology, the dreaded stuffy backroom no longer has to be the General Managers outpost. Instead, they can be on the floor, doing what they do best, instead of wrestling with spreadsheets and manual reports. Larger offices can then serve functions like as a private dining room, maximizing the amount of revenue to be made of each sq m of a business, or a dedicated staff room, where a team can go on their breaks to fully recharge. 

Likewise, customers will have a more seamless experience in the restaurant, as a better idea of demand will eliminate long queues, and the right number of staff can be scheduled. Further, a clearer understanding of order types will enable restaurants to separate spaces and eliminate traffic jams. As F&B venues have started to reopen, a lack of dedicated space for customers or delivery drivers to wait for their takeaway orders can create awkward blockages that can put off customers who might be looking to sit down. Creating lanes – or even a hatch to hand food out to drivers – for each order type can make everything run smoother. 

Time saved in this sense allows restaurateurs to get back to why they got into the business in the first place: showing hospitality. When time usually spent compiling reports is given back, restaurateurs can actually implement changes and make better decisions. Plus, with better tools available to help make these decisions, you have a happier team, and a happier team means happier customers - the key to success. 

Cover image: MSC Cruises robot bartender is billed as an integrated bar and entertainment experience.'