When can we expect automated restaurants in Asheville?

DIGITAL DINING: Although it may be some time before Asheville sees robot-run restaurants like those trending in larger U.S. cities, automation is increasingly finding its way into local food business operations. Pictured is Sam Foster of Blue Ridge Restaurant Equipment. Photo by Luke Van Hine

With fully automated restaurants cropping up in places like Boston and San Francisco, one can’t help but wonder if these innovations will make their way to Asheville anytime soon. And could these robot chefs that are capable of rolling out and saucing pizza dough, sautéing and assembling grain bowls, and even crafting the perfect cheeseburger, possibly help solve the labor shortages troubling our restaurant industry?

According to local restaurateurs, not yet. At least not in a way that will significantly reduce staffing costs — or tickle the imagination of science fiction fans. But that’s not to say technology hasn’t made major waves in the way restaurants do business.

It starts in the front of the house. According to a study by the National Restaurant Association, 61 percent of customers are willing to use a touch-screen ordering kiosk, and 27 percent already have in a dining setting. Moreover, 51 percent report ordering takeout directly from a restaurant’s website, circumventing the need for a server or cashier.

“More than anything, automation has made work more manageable, and also it’s made the management of items and data more simple,” says Randy Talley, co-owner of the certified green and sustainability-focused Green Sage Cafe and one of the Asheville restaurant industry’s leading innovators. “It doesn’t save money, but it saves time and makes a more consistent product.”

Like many area restaurants, especially in the fast-casual scene, Talley embraces tablet systems and cloud-based interfaces that modernize the tedious labor of scheduling, human resource management, inventory management and point-of-sale transactions. With a few clicks of a mouse, a restaurant’s supplies can be ordered, paperwork can be requested and filed in a cloud drive, and schedules can be optimized to match peak busy times.

“Everything is designed to make the process streamlined. But also you don’t want to get rid of the human element. Customers want things to go faster but still want that human interaction,” says Talley.

Also in the works for Green Sage is a virtual onboarding program that trains new hires on a digital platform, as well as a crowd-based kiosk that encourages customers to manually place their orders on tablets — a trend that has already taken off at national chains like McDonald’s and Chili’s. In fact, Forbes reports that by 2020, all U.S. McDonald’s locations plan on having these self-ordering kiosks implemented.

“The system is designed to think the way customers think,” Talley explains. “I would say that is automation in the simplest form because it saves you the time of waiting in line and confusion of conveying to another what you want.”

Automation has also improved Tupelo Honey CEO Stephen Frabitore’s approach to restaurant operation. He says table management software has been a great tool for more effectively seating customers and estimating wait times. And, he adds, thanks to software that plots and plans food inventory, “the days of walking around a cooler and checking off lists by hand are quickly coming to an end.”

While all of these automations do create more efficiency in the industry, they don’t exactly reduce labor needs. In fact, with the rise of online ordering and self-operated kiosks, the demand for kitchen workers has actually increased in most cases, says Talley.

So, is there any mainstream automation that concretely reduces labor? There’s certainly great potential. According to a report by the McKinsey Global Quarterly, 73 percent of the activities workers perform in food service and accommodations have the potential for automation, based on technical considerations.

Depending on your budget and cuisine, there are a few pieces of equipment that Sam Foster, an employee at Blue Ridge Restaurant Equipment, can recommend.

Lee’s Hoagie House, a chain with an Enka location, uses an automated deli machine that slices, packages and labels meat and cheese without a human operator. And for a pretty $6,000 (compared to the $700 price tag for standard friers), most fast-food restaurants use automated friers that produce french fries with a push of the button. There’s also a device that automatically manages the temperature of walk-in refrigerators through a text-message alert system, reducing food waste and the time a chef would normally spend recording temperatures by hand.

This is about as cutting-edge as it gets in Asheville for now. Sixty-three percent of restaurants that want to add more technology to their business model list cost of implementation as the leading barrier, according to a report by the National Restaurant Association.

“I think in a town with this much push toward independently, locally owned, high-quality restaurants, you’re just not going to see people who can afford to go into that kind of large-scale automation,” Foster says. “It’s incredibly expensive. As the equipment gets more readily available and approachable on the used market, you’ll see more restaurants considering them. … I’ll say in the next eight or 12 years, you’ll see that stuff more readily available in the used market.”

Asheville’s strong cultural disposition toward scratch-made, personalized cuisine may also play a role in its slower response to automation. Call it the Appalachian way.

“My gut says the reaction [to a fully automated restaurant] would generally be less than positive,” says Frabitore. “The viability of that concept or the use of that automation is going to come down to value and consistency. At the end of the day, folks do visit restaurants for product, which is food and service. What works in a dense and urban environment like San Francisco is very different than what works here.”

”I think there’s an extreme value in making a bagel that’s hand-rolled,” says chef Katie Button of Curaté and Button & Co. Bagels. “Machines can do a lot, but we need that human feature to create quality.”

In contrast with many fast-food and fast-casual restaurants, Frabitore and Button prefer to attract and retain workers the old-fashioned way — by providing better compensation and benefits.

Tupelo Honey ranks in at least the top 75 percent of the industry for pay, has a progressive benefits program that gives employees new perks every three to four months and even offers pet insurance, says Frabitore. “These are the things our staff wants, and through that, we’re able to keep a high retention rate,” he says.

“Historically, we’ve done a poor job of supporting employees. I think we need to change that conversation,” says Button. “We should be paying a living wage. That’s the starting point. The solution to the labor shortage is making it a sustainable career path.”

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