Consumers Welcome Some Restaurant Automation, Reject Others

Operators must weigh guest acceptance while making strategic decisions about integrating automation at many restaurant touch points, according to Software Advice’s 2024 Automated Customer Experience Survey. More than half (55 percent) of global consumers say automated food preparation is unacceptable for both quick service and table service restaurants, while nearly half (49 percent) say they’re likely to order food through an artificial intelligence tool, such as a chatbot or drive-thru. Some diners are more open to robot servers at quick service restaurants (30 percent) and table service (10 percent), but are still in the minority.

Among the report highlights:

  • Most consumers (67 percent) say human-centered customer service at restaurants is very important, compared to only 31 percent saying the same of retail and grocery stores.
  • A majority (72 percent) of consumers are already loyal users of automated technologies such as self-checkout, curbside pickup, and contactless payment. Yet fewer than half have experienced the most cutting-edge retail technologies such as AI-enabled cashierless checkout and augmented reality try-on tools. Consumers believe automated tech has brought speed and convenience to in-store shopping and restaurant ordering, and many are ready for more to be introduced.  
  • Consumers believe technology makes their in-store shopping experiences more efficient and safe, but are concerned about how that technology may use and protect their personal data.
  • Only 33 percent of global consumers think it’s acceptable for businesses to exclusively use automated tech to deliver personalized recommendations. Fewer still think it's okay for businesses to fully automate store security. Only a slightly higher figure, 35 percent say it's okay for businesses to fully automate returns, exchanges, and refunds. Customers don’t find it acceptable for stores to rely on robots and software to handle complex problem-solving tasks, or tasks that keep people and spaces clean and safe.

What can restaurant operators learn from these results? Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine asked Molly Burke, senior restaurant analyst at Software Advice, to elaborate on the findings and offer practical advice on automation investments.

What should restaurant operators take away from these results? 

Restaurants are facing a complex set of economic and social forces that will lead many to invest further in automation. Prices for real estate, inventory, and labor are rising. Meanwhile, our research indicates that consumers want even more speed and convenience when dining out. Automated technology can help businesses cut costs and give customers the experiences they want. 

Automated technology can help businesses cut costs and give customers the experiences they want. 

The results give the green light for certain restaurants to introduce more front-of-house automation. They also highlight a critical distinction between the level of automation consumers accept at QSRs versus at table service restaurants—a difference that has endured post-pandemic. Finally, they point to important considerations restaurants need to make before they invest in more automation, regardless of which service category they fall into. 

Operators of table service restaurants in particular will have to be careful about how much automation they introduce, and what kind. Whereas most global consumers think it’s acceptable for QSRs to automate ordering, checkout, serving, and even sanitation tasks, the majority do not find this acceptable for table service. The only forms of automation covered by our survey that a majority of consumers find acceptable for table service restaurants are online ordering and online checkout or self-checkout, and that’s by a slim margin—54 percent for each. 

Furthermore, these results are not carte blanche for QSRs to fully automate all operations other than food prep. QSRs need to approach automation investments with a nuanced understanding of their position in the market as well as their existing perception among consumers. 

Take Chick-fil-a for example: a QSR that is renowned for its fast but attentive, personalized, human-delivered customer service. Chick-fil-a’s plans to open a cashierless location in Manhattan is a well-intentioned attempt to differentiate their service for a metropolitan audience and to meet consumer demand for mobile ordering. Still, it’s a radical departure from the human-delivered service that made the company famous and set them apart from competitors; the jarring change may not land. After all, customer perception goes beyond the ordering experience—it also includes the perception of the restaurant as an employer. Opening an employee-less restaurant may rub consumers the wrong way in our current environment of economic uncertainty. 

QSRs need to approach automation investments with a nuanced understanding of their position in the market as well as their existing perception among consumers. 

Another consideration is how automation tech may conflict with legislation. Dynamic pricing, for example, is under scrutiny by the state of New York, whose legislators are considering a ban on the technology after a disastrous announcement from Wendy’s incited public outrage earlier this year. Technology that puts consumers or workers at risk should be approached with caution. 

Before adopting more automation, restaurant operators need to ask themselves: 

  • Do consumers perceive us as a QSR or table-service restaurant? This line is often blurred. 
  • What level of human-delivered customer service do customers currently expect from us, and how might an increase in automation affect our ability to meet those expectations? 
  • How can we leverage automation to exceed customer expectations for personalized service and promote customer loyalty? 
  • Does implementing cutting-edge automation put us at risk of non-compliance with local and federal policy that protects workers and consumers? 
Were there any results that surprised you?

The results shed light on an interesting conflict regarding how customers want to receive personalized service from businesses today. 

Three big insights point to an issue restaurant leaders, particularly in the QSR market, will need to get creative in order to address:

First, for the vast majority of consumers (94 percent), customer service is still critical to their overall experience at restaurants, with 67 percent saying it’s very important. 

Second, 83 percent of consumers want to get in and out of QSRs as quickly as possible. 

Third, we can infer from consumers’ acceptance of ordering and checkout automation tech in QSRs, as well as their preference for minimal interaction with store associates in retail stores, that restaurant customers don’t want unsolicited assistance or much conversation at all with QSR employees.  

The takeaway is that customers want excellent, lightning-fast service that involves minimal conversation, an expectation that doesn't leave front-of-house employees with much opportunity to personalize their service by traditional means (i.e., building relationships with customers through conversation). Restaurant leaders already recognize that conflict, and that awareness is driving the rise of fully-automated restaurants as well as increased investment in automation and deprioritization of front-of-house hiring. Today’s ordering software can instantly suggest menu items based on order history, remind customers of their rewards point balance, and tell them the exact time their meal will be ready. Why retain the middleman? 

Particularly at QSRs, there is indication that customers may welcome entirely AI-driven FOH experiences. 

Particularly at QSRs, there is indication that customers may welcome entirely AI-driven FOH experiences. Globally, 85 percent of consumers say it’s ok to have automated ordering at QSR, 54 percent say it’s ok for table service. What’s more, 49 percent of global consumers say they’re likely or very likely to try ordering food through an AI tool, such as a genAI chatbot. 

We’ve seen time and again that AI can’t yet stand on its own in FOH customer service. And as leaders know well, one bad interaction with a customer can have disastrous consequences. Just because customers no longer frequently request help from humans does not mean restaurants should underestimate the level of empathy and competence needed to address complex customer issues in a creative and timely manner.  

Restaurants can navigate consumers’ seemingly contradictory expectations around customer service by ensuring there are employees on hand to deliver personalized, swift assistance anytime a customer requests it. 

As automation is used even more in restaurants and guests are more comfortable with it, do you anticipate these numbers will change?

I do think acceptance will increase over time with exposure to the technology, particularly in cases where the tech provides true value to customers. We saw that happen with QR code menus during the pandemic—at first people weren’t sold on them, but now 91 percent of global consumers accept QR codes at QSRs, table service restaurants, or both. Mobile ordering makes transactions smoother and quicker, and customers like that. 

But customers do have limits. An area where I anticipate a lot of friction between customers and operators is automated food preparation (e.g., relying entirely on robots or “smart” appliances to produce meals). Just 38 percent of global consumers say it’s acceptable for QSRs to fully automate food preparation (27 percent say it’s acceptable for table service restaurants). There have been a handful of generally unsuccessful experiments with fully-automated kitchens, and I’m skeptical that this will ever catch on at scale due to concerns over food quality and value for money.  

Restaurant leaders need to consider consumer perception of technologies that upend norms, and carefully market those tools to gain consumer acceptance.

Of course, if the majority of restaurants across the industry continue to invest in automation, customers won’t have much choice but to use it, and restaurants will have to deal with whatever backlash occurs if the technology is ineffective. Restaurant leaders need to consider consumer perception of technologies that upend norms, and carefully market those tools to gain consumer acceptance. For instance, Wendy’s missed the opportunity to present dynamic pricing as an innovation that brings value to customers, and instead faced a full-on PR nightmare when the public assumed they were planning to adopt surge pricing.

Early poor interactions with automated tech, such as what we’re seeing with McDonald’s automated drive-through, could render some solutions dead in the water, or harm customer loyalty for brands whose tools fail spectacularly.  

With privacy being a chief concern for respondents, what can operators do to alleviate fears about data collection?

Consumers want to know what companies are doing with their personal data, and they are concerned about hacks, leaks, and the sale of their data to advertisers. Operators should clearly communicate to customers why they collect data and how they use it, and offer an opt-out for consumers who don’t want to share their data. Businesses should reward customers for sharing their data, with discounts, loyalty perks, or other benefits.   

In what ways do guests value autonomy in restaurant transactions?

In the context of our research, the autonomy customers want is to perform aspects of customer service themselves, with the benefit of speeding up the transaction or avoiding unwanted interactions with employees. 

At QSRs, guests like to help themselves, and they prefer to get in and out of those establishments as quickly as they can. Mobile ordering, contactless payment, and mobile checkout or self-checkout allow them to do that. 

As I noted above, this doesn’t mean that consumers want to be left entirely alone with machines in QSRs. They still want prompt service from a human if they run into a complex issue or need personalized help. Furthermore, many of today’s AI-powered solutions still need a human in the loop to resolve errors and mediate complex customer requests. 

Unfortunately for many restaurant employees, more customer autonomy means there’s less motive for customers to tip. Restaurants that remove human touch points from the customer experience in favor of automated solutions need to factor in the likelihood that customers will tip less, which could impact their competitiveness in the labor market.   

Why do you feel respondents rejected robotic food prep and servers?

Food prep and serving’s impact on customer experience can’t be overstated. These are two critical areas where a restaurant can make or break customer loyalty. 

As noted earlier, consumers have a hard boundary around the level of automation they will accept in the kitchen—while some consumers are ok with the idea of fully-automated food preparation, most are not. 

Generally, people expect that when they pay a premium for food, it better be of a higher quality than what they could prepare for themselves at home. Especially at table service restaurants, consumers expect to pay for human-delivered craftsmanship, quality, and artistry. Many consumers view automated food prep as an affront to what is supposed to be a deeply personal, sensory, and cultural experience. 

Many consumers view automated food prep as an affront to what is supposed to be a deeply personal, sensory, and cultural experience. 

Customers buy into the social contract that states that humans deserve to be compensated for their time and effort. They understand that what they’re really paying for at restaurants is the price of overhead, including labor. When that labor is performed by a robot but prices don’t decrease, there’s an issue. 

Particularly for table-service restaurants, the moment when food is brought to a table is critical in strengthening the relationship with the customer and ensuring a satisfying experience. It’s the business’s opportunity to show they care about customers by checking in about the quality of the food and correcting any errors immediately. Automating this moment with robotic servers that may be less effective at these tasks poses the risk of upsetting customers with communication errors or delays.  

How should operators be focusing their future tech investments? 

Restaurant operators should focus their investments on technology that consumers say they want, while prioritizing the human touch in areas that require creative decision-making, empathy, and complex problem-solving skills.  

Technology that adds speed and efficiency to ordering and checkout, like QR code menus, handheld point of sale terminals, and contactless payment are great tools to invest in. Back-of-house solutions like inventory management software, employee scheduling software, and kitchen display systems automate routine tasks so human workers have more time to be creative in the kitchen. 

Operators, particularly of table-service restaurants with a reputation for human-delivered customer service, should think twice for now about fully automating areas of operation, especially food prep.