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The ChefBot: Will Efficiencies through AI Mitigate Labor Shortages, Food Safety, and Cyber Security Risks?

Updated: May 25

The time has come for restaurant systems and practices to evolve into streamlined operations with emerging technologies given today’s economy. Shrinkflation has caused many to ask “Where’s the Beef” as the guest’s reservation price limit for a casual burger restaurant is approaching $20 per serving. The Food Institute now reports that 78% of people in the U.S. believe that a family dinner at a fast food restaurant is now a luxury.



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The food service industry is substantially transforming with the adoption of AI-enabled intelligent cooking software and robotics. This trend is driven by the pursuit of efficiency and cost reduction, as the industry faces labor shortages.  Let’s face it robots won’t; call in sick, ask for a raise, or complain about work conditions. According to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), “Operators plan to invest in tech to enhance the customer experience (60%) and to boost productivity or efficiency in the service area (55%) or kitchen (52%).” Automated or "smart" restaurants are emerging as the new dining norm, but we should raise some concerns about labor replacement, food safety, and data/cyber security.

 

Robotic technologies may enhance the accuracy and efficiency of food production and service. AI-enabled software may help eliminate operational waste, support better decision-making, and allow businesses to adapt quickly to market changes. By automating routine tasks, AI frees up human workers to focus on more complex, cognitively demanding activities, thereby increasing productivity and making optimal use of manpower.

 

Job Displacement vs Help Wanted


 The National Restaurant News reports that "88% of operators, both limited-service and full-service, said they are likely to hire additional employees in the next six-to-12 months. The association expects the industry to add an additional 200,000 jobs this year."But will the supply of workers meet the industry demand?


 In her keynote address NRA’s CEO Michelle Korsmo stated that “Thinking about technology starts with understanding the value proposition you offer your customers—determining their needs, wants, preferences, and behaviors—and then tailoring your technology and service accordingly. This is the high-tech/high-touch approach that is critical in the restaurant business today. It can build loyalty and ultimately lead to growth.”

 

Presently smart restaurant automation offers numerous advantages in quick-service restaurants. Customer service chatbots, powered by natural language processing (NLP), act as virtual assistants when ordering at the drive-thru. At kiosks, the AI bot can answer customer inquiries, make suggestions, and even place orders, offering personalized interactions based on customer preferences and past behavior. Self-ordering kiosks allow customers to browse menus, customize orders, and pay without human assistance. AI algorithms analyze customer preferences to offer personalized recommendations, speeding up the ordering process and reducing errors. The finishing touchpoint, at least in the short run, will likely be a smiling human handing you your takeout in the drive-through.

 

Throughout the NRA show another touchpoint is emerging for order pickup, food lockers or cubbies. Of note is Apex , for the final three feet of the guest experience which manages an app-enabled bank of lockers that open when the user enters the code.



These cubbies are a part of the guest’s experience at NYC Kernel flagship restaurant which recently opened with the mission “to redefine fast food with fresh, plant-based ingredients that nourish both body and soul”.  In a session titled "The Future of Restaurant Labor in the New Human/Machine Ecosystem," Kernel’s President, Stephen Goldstein, discussed their 100% employee retention rate after the first six months of operation, as each employee feels empowered to maintain the quality level. The plan is to offer multiple locations throughout the city where the food is prepared "just in time" at a central commissary and then delivered to the locations based on customer demand. According to Kernels Chief Culinary Officer Andrew Black, the plan is to reduce the footprint to maximize efficiency where a staff of three can use assisted technology to serve hundreds of orders during peak lunch hours.

 

In the back of the house robotic kitchen tech, chefbots, can transform kitchen operations by automated food prep, intelligent cooking, and portioning, reducing labor costs. This can empower real chefs to check on quality and finish the preparation to ensure its looks, smells, and tastes according to expectations. While in the front of the house, servebots can transport completed orders to assist service staff, or they can be used to bus the tableware back to the dishwasher.


In the future automated purveyor delivery systems may allow AI-delivery robots and autonomous vehicles to optimize delivery routes and even store food products in the operations of refrigerators and storage areas. If a purveyor can anticipate demand patterns, they can ensure prompt and accurate deliveries while reducing costs for the operator to provide consistency in cash flow, while ensuring sufficient quantities for production.

 

Food Safety


 The use of automation in the food industry brings both potential risks and benefits regarding food safety. One major concern is cross-contamination, which can occur if the equipment is not thoroughly cleaned between different tasks or when transitioning between food preparation areas, possibly spreading dangerous bacteria or allergens. Additionally, technical issues or breakdowns in automated devices may interrupt food handling operations, causing delays or mistakes that could compromise food safety. Relying too heavily on chefbots without sufficient human oversight may result in overlooked hazards or misinterpretations of food safety procedures. (OAL)



 

Ultra-violet sanitation robots may offer an opportunity for food safety improvement in QSR during off hours. Delivery robots can be designed with easy-to-clean surfaces and materials, minimizing the risk of bacterial growth and making it easier to maintain proper hygiene standards. Chefbots can execute simple tasks consistently and precisely, following programmed protocols, which can reduce human errors in food handling. This all comes down to the consistent protocols developed by trained human operators to help ensure that safety procedures are correctly followed, such as proper cooking temperatures or storage conditions.(Elphic)

 

Autonomous systems equipped with sensors and cameras can monitor critical food safety parameters, such as temperature, humidity, and cleanliness can warm operators when something is off. This real-time data collection allows for the proactive identification of potential risks so that swift corrective actions and the development of processes to mitigate future risks. Assembly robots can limit human contact with food, minimizing the risk of contamination from unclean hands or improper handling practices, particularly in sensitive areas, such as food assembly or packaging. The use of task-specific robots and autonomous systems in the food industry should create opportunities for specialized training programs for employees, focusing on robot operation, maintenance, and food safety protocols.

 

While observing these automated cooking systems at the NRA tradeshow, the concern of food safety was top of mind. During my time at the show, these companies demonstrated how they plan to mitigate food safety risks and improve efficiencies of operation:


Aniai – Automated Burger Grill



Atosa – Frying and Portioning System

 

Rationale – IVario Pro: Multifunctional Cooking System



 

Robochef – Smart Line: Assembly Processing

 

Robosouschef - The Panda, is a quantity-focused unit automated wok/kettle/tumbler which can produce 5-80 portions for each batch. Once finished the preparation is deposited into service pans. The Panda is contained in a self-cleaning cabinet to mitigate sanitation risks.

 

Data-Driven Decisions

 

With technology like the ones above, the question of chefbots replacing real chefs should also be addressed. Recently, we discussed the challenges faced with a labor shortage in the Carolinas The Carolina Business Review. What is an operator to do given a diminished labor pool and the guest’s expectation that things have returned to normal? According to Restaurant 365 “Recent minimum wage increases around the country pushed the average hourly rate for US restaurant workers up by 20% between 2020 and 2022, rising from $16.65 to $18.71” Recently it has been proposed in California that the hourly minimum wages should increase to $30 per hour. In my opinion, the answer is an augmented working environment for chefs and cooks, one in which the technology enables the operator to multitask numerous processes at one time.

 

We are moving towards a just-in-time workforce as well. The 2024 Restaurant Technology Landscape Report, as presented by Hudson Riehle, Senior Vice President of Research and Knowledge Group at the NRA, stated that “25% of operators will be using just-in-time workers to fill in for staffing needs”. Riehle also reported that flexible pricing will become more common and reflected that this is not novel, that early bird specials of yesteryear helped to increase demand during lower-demand service hours. To that end, Riehle stated that “70% of consumers, including 88% of Gen Z adults and 84% of Millennials, would prefer to place their order in advance online as part of a reservation to reduce their table wait time and that they would pay a premium to select the perfect table as part of that process.” Riehle concluded his NRA Roundtable with an impactful slide that compared and contrasted the generational preferences to transact their order through table tablets or mobile apps, from ordering to payment.

 

The benefits of this data may be substantial if it can significantly reduce labor costs. AI can analyze large amounts of data to improve decision-making and operational efficiency, leading to better sales forecasts, accurate labor projections, optimized inventory management, and reduced waste. By collecting and analyzing sales data, AI-driven solutions streamline order processing, reduce wait times, and minimize food waste, improving overall restaurant operations.

 

There are challenges and considerations to address before restaurants make huge investments in automated systems. Implementing AI requires significant investment in hardware, software, and infrastructure. Restaurants need to assess the economic feasibility of such investments by conducting a cost-benefit analysis. Ongoing costs like maintenance, repairs, and employee training to use intelligent cooking equipment effectively. In the initial buildout, the owner or franchisee will need comprehensive training to ensure a smooth transition for team members and guests. Protecting customer and restaurant data is crucial, requiring investment in cybersecurity measures and training concerning data protection from hacktivists, spear phishing, and foreign actors attempting to find a back door into networks through app-enabled devices.(Dunlea)



Leon Davoyan, CTO of Dave’s Hot Chicken, stated in a session titled "Cybersecurity: How Restaurants Can Manage Their Risk," that the average cyberattack in hospitality costs $3.5 million per incident. Breaches target customer loyalty accounts not only to steal points but also to gamify the feedback loops to embezzle cashback funds. Over the past three years, $40 billion has been lost in cybersecurity breaches through state-sponsored events. When prompted with a question about his greatest cybersecurity fear, Davoyan responded with a single word: “China.” He posited that operators should apply for cyber insurance. This first step is an effective measure to determine how vulnerable a restaurant is against state-sponsored cyber attacks. This process will prompt an audit of the potential cyber risks to help the operator identify measures to prevent and protect their enterprise.  


 AI may predict consumer demand, and personalize orders based on dietary needs and preferences to enhance the guest experience, but, this progress brings its own set of challenges, with cybersecurity topping the list. Integrating AI with existing systems can be challenging, involving compatibility and data transfer issues that need careful coordination with technology providers. Food service equipment with a simple USB may just be the Trojan horse for bad actors to infiltrate a restaurant's network. The societal impacts of AI, such as job displacement and data, require thoughtful consideration and mitigation strategies.(CAS)


Restaurant 2.0

 

According to the NRA State of the Restaurant Industry Report, several key developments are anticipated in the restaurant industry. Packaging designed exclusively for autonomous delivery and carryout will become more sophisticated and effective. More restaurant layouts will include areas specifically for delivery and carryout. Restaurants will be designed to reduce the use of energy and water and minimize waste, resulting in smaller footprints. Computerized cooking equipment and flexible, reprogrammable robot systems will become more common in kitchens, enhancing food-quality consistency and productivity. It will be commonplace for restaurants to accept mobile payments and for the majority of takeout and delivery orders to be placed digitally. Turning point-of-sale (POS) data into actionable knowledge for operators will become easier, and technology will be used more effectively to control costs and enhance transparency in operations. Technologies such as blockchain will improve traceability in the restaurant supply chain, and comprehensive food safety management systems will be implemented to ensure food-chain security and prevent intentional food contamination. Web 3.0 may help decentralize the internet so that all transactions are transparent concerning fraud and promote customer loyalty through NFTs.


The next-generation restaurant will be a fully integrated smart establishment, leveraging intelligent cooking, AI, and robotics to streamline operations. Customers will use self-ordering kiosks and chatbots for personalized service, while robotic kitchen assistants handle food prep, cooking, and plating. AI will optimize inventory, labor management, and delivery routes, ensuring efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Advanced food safety protocols, supported by robots with self-cleaning mechanisms, will maintain high hygiene standards. Flexible staffing and cybersecurity measures will protect data and operational integrity. This high-tech, customer-centric model will enhance dining experiences, reduce wait times, build customer connectivity, and increase operational sustainability and productivity.


Copyright Fred Tiess 2024


References


CAS Science Team (Ed.). (2024, February). Embracing the future of AI in the Food Industry. CAS Insights. https://www.cas.org/resources/cas-insights/digital-rd/embracing-future-ai-food-industry


Dunlea, J. (2024, January 4). Revolutionizing inventory management: The Power of Ai. Akkio. https://www.akkio.com/post/ai-for-inventory-management


Elphick, K. (2024, February). Revolutionizing Modern Dining: Exploring the Impact of Restaurant Robots. Restaurant Robots Airlinehyd. May 2024, https://blog.airlinehyd.com/revolutionizing-modern-dining-exploring-the-impact-of-restaurant-robots-on-efficiency-customer-experience


Garg, H. (2024, May 2). From kitchen to table: Exploring the role of Robotics in Food Service. Engineers Planet. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/from-kitchen-table-exploring-role-robotics-food-service-r6qvc/?trackingId=uRB1FgrtS0CBu730dUZ%2FRQ%3D%3D


Raut, S. (2023, December 4). The Future of Food Safety: How Robotic Automation is taking on food contamination - automation, processing & Powder handling with robots. OAL. https://www.oalgroup.com/blog/the-future-of-food-safety-how-robotic-automation-is-taking-on-food-contamination

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