Tech versus humanity in hospitality – are we adapting?

Automated dining has been around since the age of the Automat, the first of which opened its doors and featured stand alone vending machines dispensing food and drink, back in 1895 in Germany. This was then embraced in the USA in 1902 with the first Automat opening its doors in Philidelphia, and thereby beginning the trend for autmoated dining. While the concept of self service eateries is not new, how they exist in hospitality within the 21st century is an exploration that is picking up pace in Asia, USA and now in London with Inamo, a 3-restaurant-strong brand. While we are robot years away from dispensing of all human workers in our restaurants, as more and more operators turn to advancing technology, questions must be asked as to how it will affect people working within the hospitality sector.

Why has this technology now started to pick up pace, so long after the first Automat?

Rising labour costs and rents mean that food and retail outlets are having to look at investing in options that give them long term reliance at a low cost. In 2015 a report by financial experts Deloitte reported 31% staff turnover that year in hospitality, costing operators upwards of 3 million in recruitment and training alone. This is nearly double the average rate for other industries. The Deloitte report states an average restaurant operator spends ‘45 percent of operating expenses and 33 per cent of revenues on labour costs.’ High turnover rates cause extra costs in recruitment and training. According to the report, 52% of the cost of replacing staff is productivity loss and 14% is orientation and training.

The solution, it may seem, its to do as the Germans do and get ‘Automat’ing the dining experience.

In New York, restaurant Eatsa is set up so guests order from iPads, have their food mysteriously appear in the collection section with their name on it and they can then pay with their phone, all independently. In the Deloitte report of 2015, Cao Haitao of the robot-operated Shanghai restaurant Robot.he explains, “In Shanghai, a waiter costs up to 10,000 yen (£70) a month. That’s hundreds of thousands in cost every year; Bots work every day without complaint.” These operational savings can in turn be passed on to the consumer, allowing for lower cost dining. Ma Shenpeng, a diner at Robot.he, says, “A meal for two on average costs 300-400 yen (£2-£3) but here, all this table of food is just over 100 yen (£0.70).” We may not enjoy quite such a bargain for a meal in the rest of the world, but a drop in the cost of eating out would of course be possible in this scenario.  With this meaning more people eating out, there is potential growth for employment within this sector, as while robots can do a lot of things, they can currently only offer service and not hospitality; and there is a key distinction between the two concepts.

When Danny Meyer, one of the top restaurateurs in the whole world, trains his front of house teams, one of the first things discussed is this difference. As he writes in hospitality totem Setting the Table:

“Understanding the distinction between service and hospitality has been the foundation of our success. Service is the technical delivery of a product. Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel. Service is a monologue [like the programming of a robot], we decide how we want to do things and set up our own standards for service. Hospitality, on the other hand, is a dialogue. To be on a guest’s side requires listening to that person with every sense, and following up with a thoughtful, gracious, appropriate response. It takes both great service and great hospitality to rise to the top.” 

So while robots are a fantastic aid to restaurants, we still want that human connection when we dine, and indeed for employees in hospitality part of the main drive to work as we do is being able to spend time with guests, creating great experiences.  

This is demonstrated perfectly by restaurants such as Eatsa who have re-evaluated their initial ‘no human’ position and now have evolved to hire people as ‘mascots’ on the floor to guide and interact with diners. They are positioned much like the tech team in Apple, bouncing around to make sure you have everything you need.  In fact John Ha, formerly of Kang Nam Tofu House, has stated that using robots (his is called Penny the food runner) in partnership with front of house, tasking the robots with responsibilities that would overall take waiters away from their guests, allows in fact for better service – perhaps even more table time for waiters, giving guests a far more individual and attentive dining experience (and therefore better hope for waiters to get good tips from those guests).  When highlighted like this, it seems like a win-win for employee and diner. 

There is a challenge however as these lower paid, lower skilled roles are handed over to robots, and that is: where do we place the people that currently do that work? 

Currently these entry roles allow a person from less privileged academic/socio-economic groups a vocational opportunity they may not have considered for getting higher up the ladder. The restaurant industry is also an unsung hero when it comes to recruiting people who often find more office based, theory-heavy employment a real struggle. I have always taken great pride in the fact that I work for an industry that not only embraces people with learning or physical difficulties, but goes out of its way to seek ways to employ these people through charities like Mind. Then we have amazing organisations such as Crisis with their Skylight cafes, offering the chance for people experiencing homelessness to learn skills for employment. We also have Clink, who do amazing work with people who are incarcerated and want to turn their lives around.  It means that hospitality will have to reevaluate how it recruits, and potentially spend more time on training to get people into customer-facing roles a lot quicker so this entry level workforce do still find a place within this fantastic industry. 

As a report regarding developments in automation stated, automation could displace as many as 73 million U.S. jobs by 2030, “But economic growth, rising productivity and other forces could more than offset the losses”. So as long as hospitality evolves with this technology, there will still be a place for everyone to work within it at some level. 

While places like London’s Inamo – whose interactive tables allow you to set the mood, order food and drinks, even watch the kitchen on a live chef-cam feed – can offer you a new and novel way to dine, it is exciting to see how else this new technology could enhance a dining out experience, as well as the workers’ environment. 

A big part of going out for dinner is that the people who work in our favourite restaurants have the ability to make a huge impact in our day. Part of the reason people take jobs in hospitality is because they enjoy being a part of the ‘experience industry’. It’s an amazing sector to work in, where every day is different and you get to have an impact on the enjoyment of people’s special occasions, or just aid them in being distracted from their everyday life –

With all this new technology taking away those tasks that draw workers away from these positive parts of their role, it can only benefit the working environment overall.  As long as we continue to move and metamorphose with the advancement of technology and actively seek how we as waiters will still play a major part in the dining out experience, then there are nothing but benefits to us embracing this new normal.

Do you want to put a smile on someone’s face every day by creating amazing experiences? Set up a Stay Nimble profile today to take ownership of your career journey.

Author: Michelle

Michelle Righini has nearly two decades of experience in UK restaurant companies, including managerial roles in The Diner and the Polpo group and as national training manager with Giraffe. She has a background in psychology and is interested in researching morale and wellbeing in the catering industry.

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