On a recent trip to Carl’s Jr., I had the following exchange at the drive-thru window:
Carl’s Jr. Female Voice: Good morning! Welcome to Carl’s Jr. Would you like to try our new Smoked Sausage, Egg, and Cheese Biscuit?
Me: No, thank you.
Carl’s Jr. Male Voice: What can I get for you today?
Wait a minute. Wasn’t I just talking to a woman? I thought so. In actuality, I was listening to a recording that plays every time a customer drives up.
Currently, automation at fast-food restaurants is mostly relegated to self-serve ordering kiosks and drive-thru greetings like the one I experienced. But the growing nationwide push by fast-food workers to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour is prompting the industry to look for more ways to automate human functions, such as cooking and preparing food.
According to a 2010 National Restaurant Association study, restaurants typically spend about one-third of sales revenue on labor. Most fast-food chains believe that the investment in automation will help control labor costs. Andy Puzder, the CEO of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, told Business Insider that he wants to implement more automation at his chains. “[Robots are] always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case,” he said.
Puzder has taken inspiration from Eatsa, a restaurant concept built around almost total automation. With locations in San Francisco and Los Angeles, the technology-driven eatery employs just a handful of kitchen workers while, with the exception of one attendant to address technical issues, all front-of-house procedures are computerized. Orders are placed and paid for via in-store iPads or on the store’s mobile app, and the half-dozen kitchen staff is hidden from view as they prepare the food. When an order is ready, it appears to the customer through a transparent LCD screen box window.
While the lack of human interaction may seem cold at first, Eatsa’s co-founder Tim Young argues “What we’ve designed creates a sense of mystery, creates a sense of intrigue.”
Puzder agrees. “Millennials like not seeing people. “I’ve been inside restaurants where we’ve installed ordering kiosks… and I’ve actually seen young people waiting in line to use the kiosk where there’s a person standing behind the counter, waiting on nobody.”
Automation is the future of fast food, and it’s coming to a window near you.