It’s 5:30 a.m. Monday at a breakfast restaurant with seating for 200. Guests will start showing up by 6:30 a.m., and the head chef, just back from vacation, hasn’t appeared. Fifteen minutes later, he calls to say that he was exposed to COVID-19 while away, and needs to quarantine. Compounding the problem: Two wait staff members have quit, without notice, because they can earn more elsewhere.
At 6:30, the regulars are beginning to line up, impatient to be seated. But the coffee isn’t perked, the ovens aren’t yet hot enough, and everyone is stretched thin. Will customers understand if the experience and food aren’t up to their usual standards? Will they give the restaurant another chance?
Restaurant staffing is challenging in the best of times. When managers have dozens of sites to monitor, a worker shortage can lead to a tipping point—one where safety is compromised; equipment gets close to breaking down, unnoticed; and unnecessary costs drain profits, so pay raises to keep existing staff are out of the question.
Unfortunately, staffing issues may plague the industry for a while. In May 2021 alone, employment at restaurant and dining facilities was down about 12 percent, or 1.5 million jobs, compared to before the pandemic. With the Delta variant exerting new financial pressures, multi-site restaurant chains have to cook up new strategies to maximize sales, lower costs, and remain strong no matter how few people they have.
How? By using technology to develop what busy parents wish they had—multiple sets of eyes and hands to empower them to make improvements at every location, simultaneously.
Many restaurants have already gotten “smart” about solving this challenge.
They use the Internet of Things (IoT) to stay on top of what’s happening, enterprise-wide.
They do this by connecting digitally with their equipment—including ovens, refrigerators, dish machines, fryers, and more. Once they’ve done so, they can monitor their machine operations, automate schedules, and optimize processes, all by leveraging one central online interface and a mobile app.
This can help in myriad ways. Among examples:
1. Making sure equipment is on when needed—and only then
In the scenario above, equipment was not ready for the breakfast rush because of staffing issues. The IoT can be used to automatically turn on key equipment so that it is ready when it needs to be and not before. And, rather than rely on overworked staff members to turn equipment off at the end of the day, that process can be automated as well, resulting in a significant reduction in energy expenses and extended equipment life.
2. Improving customer and staff happiness
What happens if in the middle of a staffing shortage, complaints increase because the food isn’t being served fast enough? The IoT can be used here, too, to make sure that kitchen equipment is being used at capacity to prevent unneeded bottlenecks.
For example, a major restaurant brand recently introduced a new pizza menu that was even more successful than anticipated. Unfortunately, demand seemed to be producing bottlenecks and delays, as the ovens couldn’t seem to accommodate the increased orders—or so the brand thought. Data from the connected ovens showed that the staff wasn’t loading them to capacity and more throughput was indeed possible. The restaurant made changes to ensure that all ovens were being used to the fullest extent, and the problem was solved.
Wait staff love to serve people, and the stress of disappointing them can lead to attrition. Paying attention to details like optimal oven use can reduce complaints, keep diners coming back, and prevent employees from leaving unexpectedly.
3. Enhancing safety protocols, even with fewer people
Restaurants follow Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) procedures that require time-pressed staff members to do line checks and other safety processes multiple times a day—a process they typically want to get through as quickly as possible.
Placing temperature sensors in refrigeration and other equipment and digitizing other HACCP processes significantly reduces the time commitment, improves accuracy, and increases the amount of critical data being received. It prevents the inconsistencies and missing information—a major issue if there is a later food safety audit—that can occur when staff are distracted or simply moving too quickly.
The timeliness advantage can’t be overstated when diners’ health and safety and brands’ reputations are at stake. Sensors and connected equipment enable alerts to be issued as soon as problems, such as refrigeration temperatures being above food safety levels, are observed. Not only can this avoid food safety issues, it can also avoid the significant food waste and cost that can occur if a walk-in cooler or freezer fails without staff being aware of it.
One restaurant chain that began monitoring ovens even discovered that meat was being cooked at some locations before it was fully defrosted. Digitization also enables management to know that corrective actions have been taken in time to prevent serious consequences.
Air purification systems with special UV light bulbs that kill viruses is another way to enhance safety. Some of these have been integrated with the IoT to allow remote control and scheduling of the units and to be alerted when the bulbs need replacing. Restaurants that promote their use of this technology may attract more guests, as well as make the staff more comfortable with coming to work.
4. Doing more with less, while saving, too
When restaurants have fewer team members, the last thing they want is the chain reaction that occurs when equipment breaks down. Not only is this a recipe for customer dissatisfaction, it can also represent a huge dent to the top and bottom line at just the wrong time. IoT data provide advance warning of kitchen equipment problems, helping ensure that the issues can be addressed before the equipment fails.
Or consider the example of a restaurant that stacks its ovens and discovers that the top units are wearing out faster than the bottom ones. IoT data could reveal that it’s a simple matter of kitchen staff avoiding bending and leaving bottom ovens virtually unused. By programming the top ovens to stop running during quieter periods, restaurants can save on premature replacement costs (often three times more expensive than maintenance), as well as breakdowns that prevent them from serving popular items.
The emergence of robotics
In addition to the IoT, the other technology that is emerging in importance during staffing shortages is robotics. Robots are increasingly being used to prepare pizza; place food in the oven; retrieve ingredients from refrigerators; adjust temperatures; use the sink to fill pans, and pour, mix and plate; and overall take a further load off the cooking staff.
In short, the ingenuity, warm relationships, and fantastic food and service that have kept restaurants alive through COVID-19 can be harnessed once again, despite the stress of continued staff shortages. The use of IoT and robotics can ice the cake—saving restaurants money and time as they strive to maintain their vitality.
Martin Flusberg is the president of Powerhouse Dynamics, a leading provider of IoT-based solutions to connect, analyze, and control equipment—including Open Kitchen, which is focused on foodservice and retail. The company also provides “site health” products, such as Bluezone by Middleby and Vyv. Flusberg can be contacted at email@example.com.