Earlier this month, senior leaders gathered at CES in Las Vegas to revel in the latest technologies set to revolutionize the global marketplace. The event’s theme was heavily influenced by artificial intelligence (AI) and progressive technology impact, prioritizing convenience for consumers and operational efficiencies for everyone else. One area of most interest to retailers is the evolution of robotics and AI to streamline the food and beverage industry, specifically for restaurateurs in quick service and fine dining.

Once futuristic innovations, automation and automatons are stepping into the present, advancing and shaping how we experience dining today. According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2023 State of the Industry Report, robotics in restaurants is on the rise:

Colliers Insight
Anjee Solanki
Nearly half of Americans are open to robot-cooked meals, and 37% welcome robot delivery–providing a massive pool of potential customers, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2023 State of the Industry Report.

There’s a Bot in the Kitchen

One of the most adaptable and advanced technologies is the inclusion of robotics in brick-and-mortar restaurants. Restaurant robots have come a long way since the Two Panda Deli in Pasadena; they now serve consumers meals and drinks and actively prepare food. In 2021, a coffee-making robot arrived at San Francisco International Airport, a testament to the impact of automation on the food and beverage industry, as coffeehouses like Seattle’s Artly and Brooklyn’s Botbar invest in a line of automated cafes.

Health-conscious Sweetgreen added a salad-making robot dubbed the Infinite Kitchen to its staff after underwriting developmental research into robotics technology. The robot assembles salads through a dispensing function that shoots portioned-out ingredients into bowls. The productivity of Sweetgreen’s new employee is impressive–preparing up to 500 salads per hour. The Naperville store has seen a significantly higher sales margin than non-robot-enabled stores. 

Similarly, Steve Ellis, the former CEO of Chipotle, is opening a new endeavor called Kernel, a vegetarian fast-food restaurant operated mainly by robots. The Kernel Robotics food assembly equips backend kitchens with advanced technology that ensures precise ingredient measurements that enhance the speed of food preparation and improve food safety. A three-person workforce will assist the robots. White Castle, an early adopter, introduced its robotics arm, Flippy, in 2020. The frying robot produces 30% more fries than the sentient beings in the kitchen. Now, in its 2nd iteration, Flippy 2 has rolled out across one-third of White Castle’s U.S. locations to complement the customer service tasks of its human counterparts. 

Surge Pricing for On-Demand Food Orders

Rising costs are squeezing restaurant margins, leading some restaurants to implement surge pricing for on-demand food orders. The dynamic pricing model, used by ride-sharing services, targets peak dining hours or high-demand periods. The convenience of self-service kiosks and touchscreen technologies has contributed to the increased usage of dynamic pricing models. The proper management system allows restaurants to personalize the consumer experience while collecting real-time behavior data. 

Customers may experience variable pricing based on real-time factors such as order volume, delivery time, and restaurant capacity. While this pricing strategy aims to optimize restaurant revenue, it has sparked debates about fairness and transparency. As one customer in Florida shared, “I recognize that surge pricing aims to balance the supply and demand of restaurants, but clear communication could go a long way in helping myself and other customers handle the frustration.”

Your Time is Up

In an era where time is of the essence, some restaurants are experimenting with dining time limits to streamline operations and cater to a more extensive customer base. The concept involves setting a predefined time limit for each dining experience, encouraging turnover, and allowing restaurants to serve more patrons throughout the day. While this trend may raise concerns about rushed dining experiences, proponents argue that it enhances efficiency and ensures a more structured reservation system. As dining time limits become more prevalent, striking the right balance between efficiency and a pleasant dining atmosphere will be crucial for restaurants adopting this approach.

Many contactless innovations driven by the demands of the pandemic have accelerated the food and beverage industry’s adoption of automation to streamline business operations and cater to convenience. As the sector continues to embrace AI and robotics, we’re likely to see a shift in the future of dining, with brands adjusting to the challenge by ensuring transparency in pricing to maintain a pleasant dining experience.