The machines can’t make a decent burger just yet—but they can definitely take your order. Not that labor groups are worried.
Koji Sasahara / AP
America's growing force of fast-food workers may soon have a challenge on their hands greater than the inability to earn a living wage from full-time work in the industry: Much of the work they are currently doing could be taken over by machines within the coming decade or so.
While the full automation of fast-food cashiers isn't here just yet, researchers and those in the business say it's only a matter of time before ordering and payment become primarily self-service. Mobile apps and touchscreen kiosks that are already transforming the business will likely become more appealing as wages rise, and will probably take over even if they don't.
Restaurants are keeping a close eye on labor costs. Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco all recently approved increasing their minimum wages to $ 15. On July 22, a New York wage board recommended gradually increasing wages for fast-food workers in New York City to $ 15 by Dec. 31, 2018, and to $ 15 for the rest of the state by July 1, 2021. It now awaits approval by the state's labor commissioner.
“I fully believe that it will seem crazy, even just two or three years from now, that we used to wait in long lines until we got our turn, and then told [a cashier] what we wanted, and had them punch it into a machine for us,” said Noah Glass, founder and CEO of Olo, which makes mobile ordering and payment technology for restaurant chains including Five Guys and Chipotle.
The current system seems particularly outdated, he said, “in an era where 75%, 80% of us have supercomputers that are location-aware and web-enabled on our bodies at all times.”
Industry groups are keen to remind workers that demands for higher pay are taking place just as labor-saving technology is making its move on a core part of their work. “You can have a $ 15 [minimum wage] or you can have the same number of job opportunities you have now, but you can't have both,” said Michael Saltsman, research director for the Employment Policies Institute, a business-backed think tank.
A full-page ad the organization took out in the New York Post in June was less coy. “Meet the new minimum wage employee,” read the text over a photo of a touchscreen ordering kiosk.
The Employment Policies Institute ad in the New York Post.
Employment Policies Institute
Amid these declarations, many of the country's largest fast-food chains, including Starbucks and McDonald's, have rolled out or are in the process of developing smartphone apps and in-store kiosks that shift work from the cashier to the customer. It's still early days, but if consumers show in large numbers they're willing and happy to place orders themselves — primarily as a matter of convenience — even a $ 7.25-an-hour worker under today's federal minimum wage could become a questionable expense.
As wages increase, “franchisees have to find a way to pay for those extra costs,” Dunkin' Brands CEO Nigel Travis told BuzzFeed News. Operators of the company's Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins outlets can offset higher labor expenses through “some form of automation” like new ordering technology, adjusting supply chains, or increasing sales, he said.
Another option, less popular with customers, would be raising menu prices. Just this month, consumers saw increased labor costs lead to higher prices at Starbucks and Chipotle.