The Restaurant Operator’s Dilemma in 2022: Automation Vs. Hospitality

In 2022, the restaurant business finds itself at something of a crossroads—or, to put it in a more 21st-century way, the industry has reached a pivot point. Restaurants were already getting more high-tech before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but once it did, adoption of solutions including contactless ordering and payment methods became a matter of survival, in more ways than one.

Whether the Omicron variant proves to be the coronavirus’s last gasp (here’s hoping) or not, things will, at some point, return to something resembling normalcy. That doesn’t mean, however, that the restaurant industry’s pace of tech adoption is likely to slow down. Automation and artificial intelligence have opened up new horizons of efficiency for operators, who would be loath to give it all up.

After all, this is an industry that can use all the efficiency it can get, thanks to a labor crisis that doesn’t appear to be easing up. Last November alone, a record-high one million American hospitality workers quit their jobs. According to one recent survey, a large number of restaurant operators across the country powered through the one-two punch of the pandemic and the Great Resignation by introducing more technology to their operations; 56 percent implemented online ordering, 42 percent automated more functions online and offline, and 33 percent implemented contactless dining.

Improving the Employee Experience

That same survey found that 51 percent plan to automate more online operations in 2022, with 41 percent automating additional on-premise operations—but don’t think for a second that this means restaurants are interested in replacing human beings altogether. In fact, the vast majority (82 percent) are so intent on attracting and retaining employees that they plan to increase compensation in various ways, from raising wages and offering bonuses to implementing new tipping options for kitchen staff.

When technology elevates the role of the human worker, there really is no dichotomy between automation and hospitality. 

If restaurants are, by necessity, operating with reduced staff, one of automation’s primary functions should be to make the employee experience a better one. The employees who are in place should not have to shoulder an increased burden because of smaller crew sizes—nor should the customer’s experience have to suffer as a result of reduced staffing. The good news is that operators are responding with the right tech to address both of these issues at the same time.

Thanks to automation and contactless technologies, more and more of the business of running a restaurant is now in the hands of the customer. In many cases, patrons scan a QR code with their own smartphone and order and pay without having to flag down their server. While many restaurant-goers appreciate this convenience—especially at quick-service and fast-casual establishments—few are looking for a completely automated dining experience.

Doing More with Less

In spite of the industry’s best efforts to lure workers back, hospitality currently has a smaller labor pool than at any time in recent memory. Technology can’t completely fix that, but it can mitigate some of its impact. For instance, it can mean that fewer servers are required to cover more tables. When they can do more with less, restaurants and service staff have more operational bandwidth, and a smaller team can also foster more engagement among individual staff members. The focus can rightly shift from transactional interactions to higher qualitative guest experiences and engagements that leave a lasting impression.

When technology elevates the role of the human worker, there really is no dichotomy between automation and hospitality. 

Customer-facing tech not only empowers customers, automation can free servers from having to manually place orders or spend precious service time taking individual payments, for example. Because they are focusing less on logistical concerns and more on fortifying relationships, servers can add significantly to the guest experience through more meaningful interactions. 

It’s a pretty simple metric—happier guests deliver more value to servers, often in the form of increased average order value and bigger tips. In fact, stats have shown that operations that have implemented guest-focused tech regularly see tips up to 26 percent higher than those relying on traditional service models. Bigger tips mean happier servers, ultimately improving staff retention and reducing labor shortages.

Where technology is concerned, the only way to go is forward, and whatever else 2022 (and the years beyond) may bring our way, we will surely see more automation in the restaurant space, both behind the scenes and in guests’ hands. If we can maintain the right balance, where increased operational efficiency actually supports both worker engagement and customer satisfaction, that’s an automatic win for everyone.