Fast food makes room for jobs, tech

Con­sumers, not costs, drive change

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY CANDICE CHOI

NEW YORK | It’s a sce­nario of­ten in­voked by crit­ics of min­i­mum wage in­creases: fast-food work­ers re­placed with burger-flip­ping ro­bots.

The im­agery resur­faced when Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump named An­drew Puzder to head the La­bor Depart­ment. Mr. Puzder, CEO of the com­pany that owns Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, is known for say­ing sig­nif­i­cant wage hikes would lead to job losses and the au­to­ma­tion of some tasks.

But the sen­ti­ment does not square eas­ily with the re­al­i­ties of the fast-food in­dus­try.

De­spite lo­cal min­i­mum wages hikes, the num­ber of fast-food jobs has climbed, and many em­ploy­ers say they have had dif­fi­culty re­tain­ing work­ers as the econ­omy im­proves.

Res­tau­rant chains in­clud­ing McDon­ald’s and Olive Gar­den are in­deed rolling out op­tions such as or­der­ing kiosks and table­top tablets. Those changes even­tu­ally may re­duce or change the na­ture of res­tau­rant jobs, but they stem more from the in­dus­try’s adap­ta­tion to cus­tomer habits and are likely re­gard­less of wages.

Mr. Puzder said as much to The As­so­ci­ated Press last year. “I think over time it would’ve hap­pened any­way be­cause of con­sumer pref­er­ences,” he said about or­der­ing kiosks.

His ar­gu­ment is that higher la­bor costs speed up such changes. But he also has cited bet­ter tech­nol­ogy as a fac­tor, not­ing the pop­u­lar­ity of Ama­zon, Uber and or­der­ing pizza on­line.

Evo­lu­tion and com­pe­ti­tion

For res­tau­rant com­pa­nies that have em­braced forms of au­to­ma­tion, the pri­mary goal has been im­prov­ing ser­vice to in­crease sales.

“Frankly, tech­nol­ogy is some­thing that our cus­tomers are em­brac­ing, whether it’s through their phone, or whether it’s through self-or­der­ing kiosks. That’s a so­ci­etal trend. We want to adapt to that,” McDon­ald’s CEO Steve Easter­brook said at the com­pany’s an­nual meet­ing.

Where pos­si­ble, Mr. Easter­brook said, au­tomat­ing ba­sic tasks was “the smart thing to do.” But he said McDon­ald’s would al­ways have the hu­man el­e­ment that “brings ser­vice to life.”

For now, McDon­ald’s has or­der­ing kiosks in about 500 of its more than 14,000 U.S. lo­ca­tions. In those stores, the ser­vice model in­cludes em­ploy­ees bring­ing food to ta­bles.

Chains in­clud­ing Star­bucks and Pan­era say peo­ple who use op­tions like mo­bile pay­ment apps and on­line or­der­ing tend to visit more fre­quently and spend more.

Blaine Hurst, pres­i­dent of Pan­era, said those who think about tech­nol­ogy as a way to cut costs, rather than im­prove ser­vice, “not only miss an op­por­tu­nity, but do your guests a dis­ser­vice.”

Au­to­ma­tion re­al­ity

If any­thing, the res­tau­rant in­dus­try has been slow to take ad­van­tage of tech­nolo­gies in part be­cause com­pa­nies are afraid of hurt­ing busi­ness.

Ex­ec­u­tives in­clud­ing Mr. Puzder, for in­stance, say younger cus­tomers pre­fer or­der­ing kiosks, but most oth­ers still want to place or­ders with hu­mans. It’s partly why most fast-food chains — in­clud­ing Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s — have not widely im­ple­mented kiosks.

As for kitchen tasks, re­plac­ing hu­mans isn’t easy. Mr. Hurst of Pan­era noted “salad-mak­ing robotics” demon­strated at a con­fer­ence but said the tech­nol­ogy is still far from be­ing af­ford­able or re­li­able on a mass scale.

Troi Wierdsma, who co-owns about 180 Carl’s Jr. lo­ca­tions in Cal­i­for­nia, said the chain dis­cussed ways to au­to­mate tasks given ris­ing la­bor costs. With Mr. Trump’s elec­tion, she said, those plans were off the ta­ble. Mr. Wierdsma said au­to­ma­tion is about progress, but the com­pany still is watch­ing how op­tions such as or­der­ing kiosks play out.

James Bessen, an econ­o­mist at Bos­ton Univer­sity’s School of Law, said it may be that higher wages lead to faster adoption of au­to­ma­tion. Even then, the re­sults are com­pli­cated. Au­to­ma­tion is of­ten par­tial and trans­forms a job, he said, rather than mak­ing it ob­so­lete.

The im­proved ef­fi­ciency also may lead to more busi­ness — and more jobs. The in­tro­duc­tion of bar code scan­ning in the 1980s par­tially au­to­mated the jobs of cashiers, he noted, but al­lowed stores to do more busi­ness.

Wor­ries for cashiers rose again with Ama­zon’s un­veil­ing of a store con­cept with no check­out lines. The idea may be ap­peal­ing be­cause of the con­ve­nience fac­tor, but it doesn’t ap­pear to be a re­ac­tion to higher wages.


McDon­ald’s CEO Steve Easter­brook demon­strates an or­der kiosk with cashier Es­mirna DeLeon in New York. Res­tau­rant chains are rolling out op­tions such as or­der­ing kiosks and table­top tablets that may even­tu­ally re­duce or change the na­ture of res­tau­rant jobs.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.