It’s well established that cost of living on the Peninsula is not amenable to the income generated by low skilled, fast food work. It just isn’t and raising the minimum wage or whatever you want to call it isn’t going to make a difference. As a result, few people want to work these jobs. How can you blame them if flipping burgers and banging on a cash register all day isn’t providing an income that makes it possible to cover the basics?
It used to be that fast food was a job that kids filled in their off hours or during summer, it is not a career. Today’s young people have many competing demands on their time, from school to sports to activities that they are expected to participate in order to make them competitive for college admissions. There is also a youth entitlement factor that comes into play in wealthy communities. However, in my conversations with small business owners the number one problem with hiring teens is that they cannot commit to the time that is required to hold down a job.
Today I read an interesting piece on McDonald’s:
“For example, labor needed to run stores during lunch hour,” one franchisee wrote. “Our competitors have 6-8 people to run close to the same volume that we need 20-25 people.
It’s a perfect storm of changing consumer tastes, poor brand management, and food quality hitting McDonald’s at the moment. If we throw in labor efficiency, we may have hit the tipping point that results in an unsalvagable business. It is this last issue that is most interesting to me.
There is no reason at all why fast food restaurants could not be staffed primarily by robots. I’m not talking about cute humanoids delivering food to tables but rather the heavy lifting part of fast food… the kitchen.
Fast food is designed to be repeatable in preparation and presentation, a perfect scenario for robotics. Fast, efficient, and consistent preparation of food can be accomplished with sensor heavy automation that manages food quality, consistency, and safety far better than humans can at the pace that is required in a fast food process. The novelty factor of automation would soon give way to a preference in much the same way that other businesses have used automation for competitive advantage.
If you carry this forward, the interesting thing to consider is how automation informs the fast/casual dining user experience from a design standpoint. Automation completely changes how a kitchen would be laid out, how logistics are managed and even how we use technology to interface with the front end processes as a customer. A maps interface on your phone could now include order entry while driving and beacons could interact with me while en route and in the restaurant itself. It’s pretty exciting to think how everything changes as a result of robotics in the fast food process.
I will close by saying that for McDonald’s these issues cannot be tinkered with. Re-establishing leadership will require bold strategies that remake the entire fast food experience, not just the McDonald’s brand experience. Automation won’t address the menu issues they have, but it will address the labor issues that are plaguing the franchise model. They could start incrementally and insert automation in the kitchen but they also need to lay out a vision for the total experience they are designing to.