Fast Food Chains Moving Quickly Toward Self-Service Kiosks

Nevin Barich

Photo by David Kover / Serious Eats

Recently, I wrote about how fast food was turning to self-serve kiosks and other types of automation to cut costs. But it’s happening faster than I realized.

In May, Wendy’s announced that self-service ordering kiosks will be made available across its more than 6,000 locations in the second half of 2016, as minimum wage increases and a tight labor market push up wages. And Ed Rensi, the former CEO and president of McDonald’s USA, said in a recent television interview that you could expect to see both his former company and its competitors invest more in automation if the minimum wage was raised to $15 an hour.

Of course, fast food has never exactly been on the side of labor. If companies believe automation will save costs and increase profit, they’ll introduce those machines regardless of changes in law. Wendy’s President Todd Penegor admitted that wage pressures have been manageable both because of falling commodity prices and better operating leverage due to an increase in customer counts.

But what does the move towards automation mean for customers? The biggest immediate change will certainly be more self-serve kiosks when you walk inside a restaurant. Rather than ordering your food at the counter by speaking to a live person, you’ll punch in your order on a touch screen and pay for it at the kiosk. There will likely be a few workers on hand to assist customers who need help, but as time goes on, you’ll probably be expected to know how to operate one of these machines.

More changes will come behind the scenes, too. Right now, fast-food orders are completed by short-order cooks. But the industry is investing more heavily in automation to obviate those workers completely. For example, San Francisco-based startup Momentum Machines has been working on a machine that fully automates the production of burgers: it can shape burgers from ground meat, grill them to order with the specified amount of char, toast buns, add tomatoes, onions, pickles, and condiments, wrap up the completed burger, and place it on a conveyor belt to be served. Rumors are swirling about a Momentum-powered burger joint after the company applied for a building permit to turn the ground-floor retail space at 680 Folsom St. into a restaurant.

In the long term, I think automation will benefit consumers, as machines both increase speed and eliminate human error. However, implementation is always a bit rocky at the start — don’t expect the person in front of you to place an order quickly when the self-serve kiosk first arrives. For now, expect fast food companies to continue to gripe about wages, and work diligently behind the scenes to cut them.

"Fast Food Chains Moving Quickly Toward Self-Service Kiosks" originally published on The Menuism Dining Blog.