Desperate for workers, South Florida restaurants send in more robots

Tulloch, owner of Circle House Coffee in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, shows his Tully Arm, a patented device that holds hand sanitiser and a credit card reader where drive-thru customers can make a touch less payment. — Sun Sentinel/TNS

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida: After months of surviving with a skeleton crew at Fort Lauderdale’s Circle House Coffee, Stephen Tulloch’s newest drive-thru worker, a swinging robotic arm, has increased efficiency, raised morale – and has even lured new servers to the coffeehouse.

A metal-jointed arm that swings out to cars in the drive-thru, Tulloch’s Tully Arm does credit-card payments and even spritzes free sanitiser into drivers’ hands. Freed up from handling credit cards, Circle House staff has more time to mix coffee drinks, fix breakfast sandwiches and schmooze with customers. Which brings in more tips.

“Last month’s tips were roughly US$3,000 (RM12,529) and this month’s tips are already at US$7,200 (RM30,070),” says Tulloch, who started using the Tully Arm prototype on Oct 30. “We were in really bad, touch-and-go shape in the fall, and we closed early. Now everyone wants more hours because of the arm out that window.”

Circle House Coffee isn’t the only restaurant trying its hand at automation. As South Florida braces for the Omicron unknown this holiday season, more restaurants are booting up robots to gird themselves against another serious problem: a persistent labour squeeze that isn’t slowing down.

A survey of 13,659 wage earners by the online job marketplace Joblist suggests that 58% of US restaurant and hotel employees plan to quit after the New Year. About 6% of leisure and hospitality workers called it quits in October, according to new data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Now we have a perfect storm,” says Andrew Moreo, a hospitality management professor at Florida International University. “Employees worked harder during the holidays for lower wages, and now you’re throwing the Omicron variant on top of it. We’re going to see another bit of a downward spiral in service and a deeper labour shortage.”

It’s no wonder restaurants have added robo-coworkers to their ranks, Moreo says. Robots are pandemic-proof, they never call in sick, ask for minimum wage or take work breaks, which can help offset the historic number of Americans quitting their jobs.

“We’ll see more employers using technology to replace more of the task-heavy processes, like bussing and serving,” Moreo says. “But what if the robot falls over and spills food? What happens then? You still need a human problem-solver.”

BurgerFi, for one, welcomes its new employee Patty the Robot. Their robo-busser, which resembles a rolling bookshelf with trays and a touchscreen, uses motion-sensing lidar cameras to move around the restaurant, drop off and pick up burger orders, says Karl Goodhew, chief technology officer of BurgerFi.

Lidar is the same technology Tesla’s self-driving cars use, Goodhew says, and it fetches a hefty price tag: US$20,000 (RM83,530) per Patty. But that’s nothing compared to what the Lauderdale-by-the-Sea-raised hamburger chain paid in labour and related expenses linked to Covid-19 staff shortages. BurgerFi spent US$2.5mil (RM10.44mil) between July and September, a US$700,000 (RM2.92mil) jump over the same period last year, according to its latest quarterly report.

For now, Patty won’t talk to customers unless a guest blocks its path. “It says something like, ‘Please step out of the way. I don’t want to get fired. I have a job to do’,” Goodhew says.

Goodhew says Patty the Robot assists but is hardly sophisticated enough to replace human workers. “You need a human to bring value to the dining experience,” he says. Instead, while Patty is playing food runner, employees “can spend that extra 30 seconds working on a hand-blended shake. This makes the employees more efficient.”

Another Patty the Robot will be installed Jan 17 at a new BurgerFi opening at Miramar’s Monarch Town Center.

At Circle House Coffee, the Tully Arm, which costs about US$3,000 (RM12,529), practically pays for itself, Tulloch says. In November, he added a second Tully Arm to his new Circle House location in Oakland Park.

When customers stopped using Circle House Coffee’s dining room, and 80% of traffic shifted to the drive-thru, baristas earned fewer tips and quit, Tulloch says. His Tully Arm, a prototype he designed that debuted in late October, saves his workers an average of 75 seconds and gives drive-thru customers a prompt to tip.

“The barista used to take your card and put it in the machine, and they lose time to start your drink, add condiments,” Tulloch says. “Now the credit card is in customers’ possession at all times. You feel safer, plus there’s sanitiser. And employees make US$5 more per hour on average.”

Since the summer, Boca Raton-based company Grubbrr has put their self-service kiosk software inside restaurant chains including Bolay, Just Baked, McAllister’s Deli and BurgerFi. The kiosks, planted inside dining rooms, take food and drink orders instead of human cashiers, and excel in the art of the upsell, says Jarrett Nasca, Grubbrr’s chief revenue officer.

“If you’re ordering a salad, it will ask if you want a side fruit cup, for example,” says Nasca, whose company charges US$3,000 (RM12,529) to US$6,000 (RM25,059) for the kiosk, plus US$199 (RM831) per month for the software. “If you ordered nachos and drinks, our system routes the nacho order to that prep station, drinks to the drink station, and so on, so the restaurant is more efficient.”

If there’s a catch with automation, Moreo adds, it’s that robot helpers, for now, may be too cost-prohibitive for the average mom-and-pop. Even more glaring: For all the cost-saving benefits that robots supposedly bring to restaurants, the technology is too new to measure their worth.

“We don’t really know if any of this is working, if customers are being upsold, if they’re spending more or tipping more, even if they’re liking robots or just tolerating them,” Moreo says. “People are trying knee-jerk things in the name of health and safety, to stay in the black, and to keep humans employed.” – South Florida Sun-Sentinel/Tribune News Service

Article type: free
User access status:
Subscribe now to our Premium Plan for an ad-free and unlimited reading experience!

Next In Tech News

EU lawmakers agree to tougher rules on targeted political ads
Ransomware attack on data firm ION could take days to fix -sources
Couple having affair jailed 10 weeks for trying to record the woman’s daughter showering
Sushi pranks in viral videos at Japan’s conveyor belt restaurants spark outrage
Panasonic cuts full-year outlook as costly raw materials weigh
Meta mojo is back: Earnings surprise sparks share surge, lifts Big Tech
Comms and Digital Ministry announces RM69 fixed Internet broadband plan with speeds of up to 30Mbps for low income groups
Xiaomi demands payout from supplier after car designs leaked
Sony lifts outlook closer to record level, raises PS5 sales target
ABB won't rush float of $2.9 billion electric vehicle charging business - CEO

Others Also Read