Comstock's magazine 1218 - December 2018 - Page 58

AUTOMATION A t the Golden 1 Center, farm-to-fork happens at almost breakneck speed. During a Sacramen- to Kings game, fans can place mobile orders for pizza from Selland’s or sausages from LowBrau, along with dozens of other menu items from sev- eral other vendors at the arena, and the food will be delivered without the fans ever leaving their seats — and potentially missing a buzzer-beating shot. Opened in 2016, the Golden 1 Center has managed to merge its goal to be the most tech-advanced arena in the world with its commitment to the farm-to-fork movement for which Sac- ramento is known; the arena’s executive chef and restaurant partners claim to source 90 percent of their ingredients from a 150-mile radius. The Kings’ app makes these dining options available at the fingertips of up to 17,600 people on any given game night. Ryan Montoya, chief technology officer for the Sacramento Kings, says the team is “constantly in conversations and ex- ploring ways in which technology, including robots and auto- mation, can continue to enhance the fan experience.” (Mon- toya declined to comment on any specific negotiations with automated food service companies.) As the Kings show on a large scale, automation is changing food service in the U.S., although the industry is still grappling with how new technology will impact its workforce and the consumer experience. What’s become clear is that while fast- food chains are pioneering automation, small businesses and fine-dining restaurants still face a lot of barriers to embracing automation. Sonny Mayugba, co-founder of The Red Rabbit Kitchen and Bar in Sacramento, notes that trends toward automation are only just recently taking hold and there’s more to come: “At its core, the restaurant industry is an old, archaic, inefficient sys- tem. It needs some automation.” No matter the kind of operation, Mayugba says it will be successful only if operators keep one thing in mind: “What’s most important is that we look at how automation and AI en- hance the customer experience. That’s the key.” HUMANS VS. ROBOTS Walk into a McDonald’s nowadays, and the savory aroma of their signature french fries will be just as you remember. But something else will be much different: Instead of ordering them from a person, now you can belly up to a kiosk to make your request. McDonald’s began integrating kiosks in their U.S. stores in 2016 and plans to have them installed at all locations by 2020. Wendy’s, Panera Bread, Chili’s, Domino’s and a growing num- ber of other fast-food and fast-casual eateries are following 58 | December 2018 suit. As automation, machine learning, robotics and smart- phone app-based delivery become more ubiquitous in the in- dustry, it raises the question of whether food service jobs, once thought reasonably immune to automation, are actually as vulnerable as any other. Mayugba likens the fears of dwindling employment oppor- tunities in the food service sector to those over automated tell- er machines decimating bank teller jobs. That didn’t happen, he points out; instead, teller jobs actually increased. Sharokina Shams, vice president of public affairs for the California Restaurant Association, says humans don’t appear to be losing ground to robots and technology yet. “What we have now are a lot of anecdotes and stories about what might happen, but there is certainly nothing to show that automation is costing any jobs right now.” If anything, the tightest labor market in decades has led to a labor shortage throughout the industry, particularly among those aged 16-19, a demographic the industry has tradition- ally relied upon for much of its workforce. According to fed- eral labor statistics, food service employment across Califor- nia — the home of most cutting-edge automated food service technology — grew by 45 percent between 2001 and 2016. The California Department of Labor projects that trend will contin- ue in the Sacramento region at least several more years, with employment in food preparation and serving in Sacramento, Yolo Placer and El Dorado counties growing by over 28 percent between 2014 and 2024. Meanwhile, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data from Au- gust showed the industry has almost 900,000 unfilled posi- tions, a 20 percent spike over the same month last year. That lack of workers has created what Panera Bread CEO Blaine Hurst calls “a war for talent” among restaurants. Panera added around 13,000 jobs nationwide since the start of 2017 to facilitate the company’s new app- and web-based de- livery service. Most are delivery drivers, though the company says it has also added significant in-store personnel to manage additional sales. McDonald’s and Panera stores throughout the Sacramen- to area have both implemented kiosks, but visit during a busy lunch hour, and plenty of employees will still be on hand to manage orders, serve food and answer questions. Managers all swear the kiosks haven’t changed staffing. The Berkeley-based Restaurant Opportunities Center Unit- ed — a staunch advocate for food service workers — thinks concern over automation costing jobs is overblown. “The re- search shows that the impact on jobs is going to be small,” says Teófilo Reyes, ROCU research director. “We know automation is going to change things in the industry, but how much is still a completely open question.”