Restaurants look to ROBOTS to fill openings amid labor shortage
08/11/2021 // Ramon Tomey // Views

The early days of the pandemic saw a lot of companies, especially those in the food and beverage industry, lay off employees. However, employers had a hard time filling in the positions formerly held by the retrenched workers. Thus, some establishments looked to robots to address the shortage of qualified workers.

One branch of American fast-food chain White Castle welcomed a robotic fry cook called Flippy to its crew. White Castle Vice President Jamie Richardson said Flippy was not just a gimmick – as it has manned the fry station in the restaurant's No. 42 branch in Indiana for the past year. The robot arm worked 23 hours a day, with one hour reserved for cleaning.

Flippy's main tasks involved handling fries, cheese sticks, onion rings and other side items. According to Richardson, the robot's dedicated tasks gave its human crewmates more time to focus on customers. "If you know you've got the fryer covered, it frees you up to have the right person taking orders in the dining room or the drive-thru," he said.

White Castle expressed satisfaction with Flippy's performance and announced an improved version. The company announced that it will roll out Flippy 2.0 to 10 more White Castle branches across the country, together with its partner Miso Robotics.

White Castle was not the only company that collaborated with the Pasadena, California-based firm for robots in the food industry. Mexican fast food chain Del Taco also collaborated with Miso Robotics for a machine that fills customers' drinks. Del Taco Vice President for Operations Innovation Kevin Pope said the machine aims to shave seconds off the time needed to fulfill every order.


According to Pope, the goal is for a system to automatically fill in customers' chosen drinks as soon as they order. The machine then takes a cup and fills it with ice, pouring in the appropriate beverage afterward. It then covers the cup with a lid and delivers the finished drink at the end of a conveyor belt. Human crew members would only have to grab the drink instead of making it themselves. (Related: McDonald's to test run AI-powered drive-thru windows that don't need employees to take orders.)

Robot cooks: coming to a restaurant near you

Many restaurants have adopted technological solutions, such as self-service ordering kiosks, to address the lack of workers applying for jobs. According to the Department of Labor, restaurants and hotels had more than 1.3 million unfilled job openings as of May 31, 2021. This was double the amount of openings from the same period last year.

Aside from reduced costs, restaurant owners and executives also looked at consistency and reliability as the main reason for automating their operations. According to historian Ruth Cowan, the desire to replace unreliable human workers with more reliable machines served as the main driver for automation for more than a century.

"The 17-year-old fry cook isn't expensive labor, but the 17-year-old becomes expensive labor if [they don't] show up for work," Cowan said. Her projections appeared to come true as more and more people are leaving the restaurant industry. They cited shifting schedules, relatively low wages and physically and mentally demanding workload as reasons for leaving.

Despite the benefits of automation, some restaurants have opted to attract workers the old-fashioned way – with increased compensation and additional bonuses. McDonald's joined a number of restaurants that chose to increase incentives for new workers.

The company told CNBC in July 2021 that franchisees are offering higher hourly wages, paid time off, tuition payments and child care benefits. According to McDonald's, feedback from more than 5,000 stakeholders – including crew members, managers, franchise owners and operator organizations played a role in the plan. The company expects the changes will help it remain competitive when it comes to hiring and retaining workers, it added.

Meanwhile, the New York Post reported other McDonald's franchises giving signing bonuses to applicants interested to join. One franchisee who refused to be identified said he began offering $200 bonuses to new employees who stay with the company for 90 days. The franchisee added that "a lot of operators" are offering $100 signing bonuses.

Restaurant manager James Meadowcraft from Tampa, Florida advertised a $50 signing bonus for people who show up for a job interview. Unfortunately, he stopped the promotion after two weeks as it failed to attract even one candidate. "No one responded; I didn't even get anyone trying to scam us," Meadowcraft said. (Related: Florida McDonald's forced to pay applicants $50 just to show up to interview because unemployment benefits are more lucrative.) has more articles about the pandemic's effect on the restaurant industry.

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