Quick-service restaurants are experiencing record-high employee turnover, while labor advocates are pushing for higher wages. Some experts say these forces are propelling the fast food industry toward full automation.

Who’s already automating: The move to put fast food under machine control is already in high gear:

  • McDonalds announced on Tuesday its acquisition of Apprente, a company that develops voice-driven conversational agents. The 34-year-old fast-food pioneer has tested automated ordering kiosks since 2003 and recently allocated $1 billion to upgrade the technology.
  • In China, Yum! Brands, owner of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, says 50 percent of transactions take place via app or kiosk.
  • Zume Pizza of California uses robots to form dough, spread sauce (pictured above), and bake the resulting pies. Humans place toppings.
  • At Spyce in Boston, customers order and pay by kiosk, and a machine mixes their grain-based meals. Human prep cooks par-bake rice, chop veggies, and reduce sauces.

Behind the news:  Humans are opting out for the quick-service business. In July, the CEO of Panera Bread told CNBC’s @Work conference that his company experienced nearly 100 percent annual employee turnover  — and this number was low for the industry. Turnover in the Accommodations and Restaurants category (which includes traditional restaurants as well as hotels) has climbed nearly 15 percent over the last decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Why it matters: Fast food is shaping up to be a leading edge of an automation wave that could be squeezing lower-skilled, lower-wage employees out of the economy. A 2017 report by the National Council on Compensation Insurance found that, while automation historically replaces human labor, the jobs that remain tend to be higher skilled and better compensated.

We’re thinking:  Apps and kiosks are clearly capable of replacing fast-food customer service. Back-of-the-house work like assembling burritos and stacking sandwiches requires more dexterity. While those positions likely persist longer, it may be cold comfort to find yourself automated out of a job five years from now rather than one.


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