A $15-per-hour minimum wage might not lead to armies of content, sufficiently compensated fast food workers. It may instead lead to fewer employees, as bottom-line-obsessed companies move more quickly to replace “expensive” labor with tireless robots. And rising labor costs aren’t the only things getting more expensive for restaurants–wholesale food and real estate prices are also shooting up, says the Washington Post.
The easiest step that restaurant owners might take is to eliminate the front-of-house staff in a fast-food restaurant. Why pay somebody to take an order when your customers can punch it into a public terminal on their own? (They’ve already started tricking you into doing this work for them at self-checkouts in supermarkets and drug stores.) And as we pay for more goods and services with things like Apple Pay, the whole order, including payment, could be made from the customer’s own smartphone.
But regular restaurants might not yet be ready to ditch the wait staff. “I think that tablets have a place at the table,” Fat Burger CEO Andy Wiederhorn told the Washington Post, “but it’s pretty hard to ask questions, get suggestions from a tablet.”
Instead, we will see more wait staff using connected terminals–usually iPod Touches these days–to take and send orders to the kitchen and bar without having to return to base each time and spike a paper ticket onto a pin. But the biggest savings may be made in the kitchen.
Kitchen work has always been labor-intensive, especially in the U.S. where customizing your order is almost obligatory. Food prep is repetitive and menial, the kind of work that other industries automated years ago. I spent years in the restaurant and bar industry, and much of a chef’s day is spent cleaning and preparing food: chopping vegetables, pushing flesh through sieves to make paste, rolling out pastry. It’s boring, thankless work that could better be done by machines. It could also be more sanitary. Those claims on food packaging that the contents are “handmade” may sound rustic and wholesome, but to me they always seemed more of a promise of inconsistency and poor hygiene.
Over in the U.K., a London kebab shop has installed a kebab-cutting robot, a knife-wielding arm that tirelessly slices perfect-thickness strips of meat from the gyrating column of meat. The Super Kebab restaurant imported the $7,800 Atalay Doner Robot from Turkey. Super Kebab owner Hakan Gorenli told the Guardian that he and his staff love it. “Carving doner meat is a difficult task, both hot and tiring,” he said. The restaurant sells around 1,000 kebabs over a weekend, which is a lot of slicing to do by hand. What next, I wonder? A kebab vending machine? I can imagine it, surrounded by drunken, fighting Brits on a Saturday night, hammering hungrily on the glass when they can’t find the correct change.
So far then, it seems like everybody likes increased automation in the restaurant business. Menial work is reduced, owners save money, and don’t have to pay staff to stand around doing nothing on quiet shifts, and customers never have to worry about insulting a robot and finding a little slimy green extra in their sandwich. Fewer people will be able to score a McJob in this newly automated industry, but those that can will be paid a living wage. Everyone, it seems, is a winner–except the people out of work. Time for basic income.