The restaurant labor shortage has hit eateries at unprecedented levels. Should more managers turn to robotic waiters to solve the problem?

Most would agree behind-the-scenes, Ford-esque production lines are a natural place for automation, even in a restaurant. But what if the robot shows its face? Here’s how robotic waiters are tackling the restaurant labor shortage.

Understanding the Restaurant Labor Shortage

As of 2023, 62 percent of restaurants report understaffing. This dire restaurant labor shortage comes at a time when people are dining out less than usual due to high food prices. The vicious cycle of high food prices driving lower patronage has many restaurant owners tightening their belts, making it even harder to pay much-needed new employees.

The pandemic also forced a perspective shift in many workers. As people’s values changed, benefits like time off, paid sick days and maternity leave became more critical. The fast-food industry isn’t known for its stellar work-life balance and many people who left their restaurant jobs during the pandemic never returned.

How Automation Can Help

Automation serves the food and beverage industry along every part of the supply chain. Inside carbonation factories, telemetry instruments monitor tank levels via cell phone connections and refill them with carbon dioxide as necessary. Automatic pickers move shipments around the factory floor.

Now, some business owners are addressing the restaurant labor shortage with robotic staff. An Illinois restaurant has a robotic chef that can cook 10 dishes, many fast-food chains use automatic fry cookers and several restaurants are testing robotic waiters.

Can a Robotic Waiter Outperform a Person?

In many ways, automatons outshine their flesh-and-blood counterparts.

1. Productivity

In 2022, 27 percent of workers and students took at least four sick days. Multiplied by the dozen or so people working in a small restaurant, this lost productivity can add up quickly, creating a headache for owners and managers.

The most apparent benefit of robotic waiters is they never need time off. They don’t even need bathroom breaks, much less ask for a vacation during a busy period. Robots are often faster than human workers and remain consistently productive throughout the day. They can work from open to close and start again the next morning.

2. Safety

Dipping fryer baskets in hot oil is one of the most dangerous food service tasks. Spilling grease or accidentally touching the deep fryer can cause severe burns and lead to hospitalization or even death. Kitchen equipment also starts many fires every year, often caused by human error.

Servers don’t usually work back-of-the-house operations but often operate in the same space as cooks as they grab plates and rush them out to guests. Doing so leaves them vulnerable to injuries from deep fryers, stoves and wet floors.

Robotic waiters can take over these dangerous jobs to save humans from unnecessary injury. They also usually move along preprogrammed pathways that avoid hazards. A robot isn’t going to sue if it falls on its way out of the kitchen, either.

3. Politeness

Nobody programs robotic waiters to be rude. Along the same line, robots don’t experience breakups, suffer from insomnia or get a migraine that causes them to lash out at customers.

A human server might have an off day now and then, but a robot will always be cheerful, polite and ready to serve guests. This quality is attractive to business owners trying to keep their ratings up.

4. No Expectations

A robotic waiter doesn’t need tips. In fact, it doesn’t need a salary at all—restaurant owners only pay for it once, although they may need to shell out for maintenance now and then. Some robotic servers cost as little as a few hundred dollars per month. It would be hard to find anyone willing to work for less than the average cost of rent.

Downsides of Robotic Waiters

Despite their benefits, robotic servers do have a few issues.

1. Bouncing 

Not all robotic waiters are physically stable enough to carry liquids without spilling them. Some jostle or vibrate as they move down the aisle, limiting them to only toting solid foods — no soup or drinks. Still, they can eliminate some of a server’s workload.

2. Navigation 

Robots cannot go up and down steps or steep inclines. Human servers might be the best choice for restaurants with a divider between the kitchen and seating area.

3. Inability to Take Orders

Robotic servers will not take orders—not in a Rise of the Machine sense, but rather because they aren’t programmed to replace servers fully. People like to customize their orders and for guests with food allergies, the difficulty in communicating with a robotic waiter could spell disaster. Plus, servers still have to bring drinks to the table in the case of unstable robots.

4. Lack of Personality

Many diners want the human touch in their interactions with waitstaff. Although engineers may program robots to smile or be polite, they cannot fully replicate the experience of laughing and joking with guests.

The Changing Restaurant Industry

The restaurant labor shortage shows no signs of slowing down, leading to an unprecedented interest in robotic waitstaff. Although robots lack human qualities like warmth and nuance, they make up for it by being highly productive and reliable. Restaurant owners who adopt them report satisfaction with the decision, so robotic servers are likely here to stay. The future of dining out looks electric.

Expert Takes, Feature, Technology