Whilst much of the attention at Food expos around the globe recently centres on the new technology that is fast penetrating the fast food and catering industries, less attention is generally being paid to what these developments may mean for those restaurateurs and hospitality providers who will be using them in future, quite probably in substitution of human workers.

It’s worth pausing a moment to consider these – since it is quite possible that in the near future, many of the employment-related challenges that the fast food, catering and hospitality sectors regularly face may fall away, or will at the very least, be markedly reduced by these technological developments. This could positively impact legal bills, legal expense insurance policies (for those who take them out) and business time and effort spent on resolving employee-related problems.

Aside from the challenges of accommodating the minimum wage, zero hours contracts and an often transient or fluctuating workforce, one of the biggest and generally most costly challenges for employers today is having to deal with employees behaving badly. This is a challenge common to all industries, including the fast food and catering industries.

But change is afoot and it’s potentially good news for employers in this sector, though not such good news for the existing workforce employed by them.

Let’s set this a bit more context:

At the recent National Restaurant Association show that was held in Chicago, three automation innovations (amongst countless others) were showcased. Each was promoted as being likely to disrupt the food industry in the very near future.

The 3 inventions that caught my attention are a sushi making machine, an automated french fry making machine and a customised salad making machine. It may sound relatively straightforward and obvious, but what makes these machines different is their advanced level of automation. Having a robot that can create 3,600 pieces of nigiri sushi per hour, a fries-making machine that is just as good as an employee at making and serving up fries, and a salad-making machine that gives you the option of instantly selecting one of 50 types of salads in a vending machine style experience.

The french fry machine was unveiled by Middleby Corp, a US-based company and one of the biggest catering equipment supply companies in the world. Their machines can be found in chains like KFC, McDonald’s, Domino’s, Papa John’s and Pizza Hut. Middleby engineer, Randy Burt stated that the french fry machine currently may cost $30,000 but for the average restaurant that will mean “35,500 hours of constant repeatability and a more than five-year life span”.

For employers, big and small, this changes things. It’s easy to see how this will impact on cost and staff numbers. The reasonable and popular expectation is that fewer humans will be employed and this will cost less for employers in the medium to longer time. But what it must also mean is that the workforce-related challenges faced by employers today could be really quite different and arguably vastly diminished in the future. Having fewer employees will mean fewer wage disputes, reduced risks of discrimination, harassment and disability claims (typically the largest and most costly claims brought by employees against employers). This could well spell potential savings for the employer over the long term.

Having said that, these kinds of machinery won’t come cheap and they potentially throw up other issues and/or risks that either already exist or will be new challenges for catering and hospitality businesses. These could be wide ranging and include health and safety factors associated with operating the equipment and the food product produced by it, servicing contracts on the machines, maybe financing or leasing arrangements associated with their acquisition, and business liability insurance to cover potential malfunctions. What if the food product created was contaminated and caused sickness and/or an environmental health loss of licence risk? An example of where the potential enhanced need for insurance will be, is where the machinery breaks down and you suffer a business interruption and financial loss as a result, if it can’t be repaired immediately. Another example is the need for liability insurance in case a machine caused injury due to a malfunction.

The impact of robots on the workforce in the catering sector is of course wider than just food making machines. I recently came across another interesting invention that is being tried in some Crowne Plaza hotels in the States. It’s a robot they call Dash and it’s described as ‘a guest amenity delivery robot’ – basically, robot room service. As long as wifi is available (almost always) this robot does room service and can operate the lifts itself 24/7. Dash phones the client when it’s at the room door with the order and then returns to its charging docking station after the delivery. This is another example of how artificial intelligence can ease some burdens for employers, especially where it’s costly or difficult to find staff to work night shifts. If you want to know more about Dash, have a look at this article.

It’s safe to say that the world as we know it, is changing at a rapid pace. Employers will still need staff to operate machinery, to open and close their business premises, to take payments or at least oversee financial transactions, and to deal with administration. It’s difficult to speculate on the question of how the catering industry will decide to embrace this technology, but one thing is for sure, change is happening and those that fail to plan and adapt, may find themselves at the back of the queue.

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