Will the burgers and fries of tomorrow be served to us by robots?
It’s a pertinent question – and one that current and former fast-food executives are sparring over.
At the centre of the debate is the push in the United States by labour advocates to raise the minimum wage to US$15 an hour.
While several states, including New York and California, have passed laws that will soon raise wages to that level, many jurisdictions still adhere to the federal mandate of just $7.25 an hour. Labour advocates and many fast-food workers rightly say that is nowhere near enough to live on.
The dispute has relevance the world over because the US is the epicentre of the global fast-food industry. If McDonald’s and its kin are forced to raise wages there, they will inevitably face pressure to do so elsewhere. McDonald’s alone has 32,000 restaurants worldwide and employs more than 420,000 people, with 3,000 of those in more than 110 outlets in the UAE.
Some commentators, including the former McDonald’s US chief executive Ed Rensi, are suggesting that raising wages will lead to the industry replacing human workers with robots on a mass scale.
With wages at $15 an hour, it would be cheaper for McDonald’s restaurants to install a $30,000 robot arm to scoop fries, for example.
“It’s nonsense and it’s very destructive and it’s inflationary and it’s going to cause a job loss across this country like you’re not going to believe,” Mr Rensi said. “It will mean wiping out thousands of entry-level opportunities for people without many other options.”
His comments echo those of Andy Puzder, the chief executive of Carl’s Jr and Hardee’s.
Robots are “always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall or an age, sex or race discrimination case,” he said in March. “Does it really help if Sally makes $3 more an hour if Suzie has no job?”
The current McDonald’s chief executive Steve Easterbrook does not necessarily agree. At the company’s recent annual meeting, he told shareholders that automation may take over some food-preparation tasks, but it will not replace the need for human workers. Their roles are simply going to change.
“Ultimately we’re in the service business and we’re competing with other opportunities for people to eat and drink out,” he said. “Frankly, we will always have an important human element.”
The burger chain’s recent moves lend credence to that argument.
McDonald’s has been busy adding self-serve kiosks to its restaurants in several countries, including in the UAE. Besides just ordering chicken McNuggets and other menu staples, customers can use the machines to customise their burgers with higher-quality ingredients. Staff deliver orders to tables by following GPS-embedded locators.
Freed up from taking orders, some employees are now being transitioned to new roles. Some restaurants have them roaming around and chatting with customers, bringing them napkins, ketchup or anything else they may need.
The introduction of the automated kiosks and the focus on customer service is a response to the competitive forces Mr Easterbook mentioned.
Increasingly technology-savvy consumers are expecting automation to speed virtually all of their transactions. For McDonald’s, a company that succeeded largely thanks to the “Speedee Service System” introduced by its founders in the 1940s, the addition of more automation is fundamentally in line with its core principles.
McDonald’s went through a prolonged slump of moribund sales in recent years, caused largely by a menu that has grown in size and complexity. Human workers weren’t able to keep up with the changes, resulting in many consumers choosing to eat elsewhere.
Automating food production and ordering and reorienting staff toward the things they can do better than machines – interacting with customers – is not just a necessary move, it is a smart one that is likely to upgrade the fast-food experience in the long run.
For the staff who are transitioning from repetitive grunt work to interacting with customers, it is also a welcome improvement.
The fast-food restaurants of tomorrow are not going to be as robotic as the critics of higher wages suggest. Like most workplaces, they will be hybrids where everyone ends up winning.
Employees will make more money and have more satisfying jobs while customers will get faster service, plus a side order of accuracy and pleasant human interaction.
Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.