Why restaurant chains are investing in robots and what it means for workers
A White Castle team member next to Miso Robotics’ Flippy.
Courtesy: Miso Robotics
Chipotle Mexican Grill is testing whether a robot can make tortilla chips in stores. Sweetgreen plans to automate salad making in at least two locations. And Starbucks wants its coffee-making equipment to lessen the workload for baristas.
This year brought a flurry of automation announcements in the restaurant industry as operators scrambled to find solutions to a shrinking workforce and climbing wages. But the efforts have been spotty so far, and experts say it will be years before robots pay off for companies or take the place of workers.
“I think there’s a lot of experimentation that is going to lead us somewhere at some point, but we’re still a very labor intensive, labor-driven industry,” said David Henkes, a principal at Technomic, a restaurant research firm.
Even before the Covid pandemic, restaurants were struggling to attract and retain workers. The global health crisis exacerbated the issue, as many laid-off workers left for other jobs and didn’t return. Three-quarters of restaurant operators are facing staffing shortages that keep them from operating at full capacity, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Many restaurant operators hiked wages to attract workers, but that pressured profits at a time when food costs were also climbing.
Automation startups pitch themselves as a solution. They say that robots can flip burgers and assemble pizzas more consistently than overworked employees, and that artificial intelligence can enable computers to take drive-thru orders more accurately.
The year of the robot
Many of the industry’s buzzy automation announcements this year came from Miso Robotics, which has raised $108 million as of November and has a valuation of $523 million, according to Pitchbook.
Miso’s flashiest invention is Flippy, a robot that can be programmed to flip burgers or make chicken wings and can be rented for roughly $3,000 a month.
Burger chain White Castle has installed Flippy at four of its restaurants and committed to adding the technology to 100 as it revamps locations. Chipotle Mexican Grill is testing the equipment, which it calls “Chippy,” at a California restaurant to make tortilla chips.
“The highest value benefit that we bring to a restaurant is not to reduce their expenses, but to allow them to sell more and generate a profit,” Miso CEO Mike Bell told CNBC.
At Buffalo Wild Wings, however, Flippy hasn’t progressed out of the testing phase after more than a year. Parent company Inspire Brands, which is privately held and also owns Dunkin’, Arby’s and Sonic, said Miso is just one of the partners it has worked with to automate frying chicken wings.
Another startup, Picnic Works, offers pizza assembly equipment that automates adding sauce, cheese and other toppings. A Domino’s franchisee is testing the technology at a Berlin location.
Picnic rents out its equipment, with prices starting at $3,250 a month. CEO Clayton Wood told CNBC that subscriptions make the technology affordable for smaller operators. The startup has raised $13.8 million at a valuation of $58.8 million, according to Pitchbook.
At Panera Bread, automation experiments have included artificial intelligence software that can take drive-thru orders and a Miso system that checks coffee volume and temperatures to improve quality.
“Automation is one word, and a lot of people go right to robotics and a robot flipping burgers or making fries. That is not our focus,” said George Hanson, the chain’s chief digital officer
But success is far from guaranteed. In early 2020, Zume pivoted from using robots to prep, cook and deliver pizza to focus on food packaging. The startup, which did not respond to a request for comment, received a $375 million investment from SoftBank in 2018 that reportedly valued it at $2.25 billion.
The labor question
Automation often faces pushback from workers and labor advocates, who see it as a way for employers to eliminate jobs. But restaurant companies have been touting their experiments as ways to improve working conditions by doing away with tedious tasks.
Next year, Sweetgreen plans to open two locations that will largely automate the salad-making process with the technology it acquired by buying startup Spyce. The new restaurant format will cut down on the number of workers needed for shifts, Sweetgreen co-founder and Chief Concept Officer Nic Jammet said at the Morgan Stanley Global Retail and Consumer Conference in early December.
Jammet also listed an improved employee experience and lower turnover rates as secondary benefits. A representative for Sweetgreen declined to comment for this story.
Casey Warman, an economics professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, expects the restaurant industry’s push for automation will permanently shrink its workforce.
“Once the machines are in place, they’re not going to backwards, especially if there’s large cost savings,” he said.
And Warman noted that Covid reduced the pushback against automation, as consumers got more used to self check-outs at grocery stores and mobile apps to order fast food.
Dina Zemke, an assistant professor at Ball State University who studies consumer attitudes about automation in restaurants, also noted that consumers are getting tired of reduced restaurant hours and slower service that have come with labor shortages.
In a Technomic survey conducted in the third quarter, 22% of roughly 500 restaurant operators said they are investing in technology that will save on kitchen labor and 19% said they’ve added labor-saving tech to front of house tasks such as ordering.
At this point, it’s unclear if or when any cost savings will materialize.
More than a year and a half ago, McDonald’s began testing software that could take drive-thru orders after acquiring Apprente, an artificial intelligence startup. Several months after revealing the test, the fast-food giant sold the unit to IBM as part of a strategic partnership to further the technology.
At the roughly two dozen Illinois test restaurants, the voice-ordering software had an accuracy in the low 80% range, well below the target of 95%, according to a research report from BTIG analyst Peter Saleh this June.
McDonald’s crowds at self-service kiosk.
Jeffrey Greenberg | Universal Images Group | Getty Images
And on an earnings call this summer, McDonald CEO Chris Kempczinski threw cold water on the feasibility of total automation.
“The idea of robots and all those things, while it maybe is great for garnering headlines, it’s not practical in the vast majority of restaurants,” he said. “The economics don’t pencil out. … You’re not going to see that as a broad-based solution anytime soon.”
In the meantime, automation may have more potential in less noticeable tasks. Jamie Richardson, vice president of White Castle, said less flashy changes like installing Coca-Cola Freestyle machines have had a more outsized impact on sales.
“Sometimes the bigger automation investments we make aren’t as earth shattering,” Richardson said.
Lucid to cut 1,300 workers amid signs of flagging demand for its EVs
Lucid Motors CEO Peter Rawlinson poses at the Nasdaq MarketSite as Lucid Motors (Nasdaq: LCID) begins trading on the Nasdaq stock exchange after completing its business combination with Churchill Capital Corp IV in New York City, New York, July 26, 2021.
Andrew Kelly | Reuters
Struggling EV maker Lucid said in a regulatory filing on Tuesday that it plans to cut about 18% of its workforce, or roughly 1,300 employees, as part of a larger restructuring to reduce costs as it works to ramp up production of its Air luxury sedan.
Lucid said it will incur one-time charges totaling between $24 million and $30 million related to the job cuts, with most of that amount being recognized in the first quarter of 2023.
News of the job cuts was first reported by Insider earlier on Tuesday. Lucid’s shares closed down over 7% on Tuesday following the Insider report.
In a letter to employees, CEO Peter Rawlinson said the job cuts will hit “nearly every organization and level, including executives,” and that affected employees will be notified over the next three days. Severance packages will include continued healthcare coverage paid by Lucid, as well as an acceleration of equity vesting, Rawlinson wrote.
Lucid ended 2022 with about $4.4 billion in cash on hand, enough to last until the first quarter of 2024, CFO Sherry House told CNBC last month ahead of the company’s fourth-quarter earnings report. But there have been signs that demand for the high-priced Air has fallen short of Lucid’s internal expectations, and the company may be struggling to convert early reservations to sold orders.
Lucid said that it had more than 28,000 reservations for the Air as of Feb. 21, its most recent update. But it also said that it plans to build just 10,000 to 14,000 vehicles in 2023, far fewer than the roughly 27,000 that Wall Street analysts had expected.
With Lucid’s factory currently set up to build about 34,000 vehicles per year, the company has warned of continuing losses.
“As we produce vehicles at low volumes on production lines designed for higher volumes, we have and we will continue to experience negative gross profit related to labor and overhead costs,” House said during Lucid’s earnings call on Feb. 22.
Lucid hasn’t yet announced a date for its first-quarter earnings report.
Virgin Orbit extends unpaid pause as Brown deal collapses, ‘dynamic’ talks continue
NEWQUAY, ENGLAND – JANUARY 09: A general view of Cosmic Girl, a Boeing 747-400 aircraft carrying the LauncherOne rocket under its left wing, as final preparations are made at Cornwall Airport Newquay on January 9, 2023 in Newquay, United Kingdom. Virgin Orbit launches its LauncherOne rocket from the spaceport in Cornwall, marking the first ever orbital launch from the UK. The mission has been named Start Me Up after the Rolling Stones hit. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)
Matthew Horwood | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Virgin Orbit is again extending its unpaid pause in operations to continue pursuing a lifeline investment, CEO Dan Hart told employees in a company-wide email.
Some of the company’s late-stage deal talks, including with private investor Matthew Brown, collapsed over the weekend, people familiar with the matter told CNBC.
Hart previously planned to update employees on the company’s operational status at an all-hands meeting at 4:30 p.m. ET on Monday afternoon, according to an email sent to employees Sunday night. At the last minute, that meeting was rescheduled “for no later than Thursday,” Hart said in the employee memo Monday.
“Our investment discussions have been very dynamic over the past few days, they are ongoing, and not yet at a stage where we can provide a fulsome update,” Hart wrote in the email to employees, which was viewed by CNBC.
Brown told CNBC’s “Worldwide Exchange” last week he was in final discussions to invest in the company. A person familiar with the terms told CNBC the investment would have amounted to $200 million and granted Brown a controlling stake. But discussions between Virgin Orbit and the Texas-based investor stalled and broke down late last week, a person familiar told CNBC. As of Saturday those discussions had ended, the person said.
Separately, another person said talks with a different potential buyer broke down on Sunday night.
The people asked to remain anonymous to discuss private negotiations. A representative for Virgin Orbit declined to comment.
Hart promised Virgin Orbit’s over 750 employees “daily” updates this week. Most of the staff remain on an unpaid furlough that Hart announced on Mar. 15. Last week, a “small” team of Virgin Orbit employees returned to work in what Hart described as the “first step” in an “incremental resumption of operations,” with the intention of preparing a rocket for the company’s next launch.
Virgin Orbit’s stock closed at 54 cents a share on Monday, having fallen below $1 a share after the company’s pause in operations.
Virgin Orbit developed a system that uses a modified 747 jet to send satellites into space by dropping a rocket from under the aircraft’s wing mid-flight. But the company’s last mission suffered a mid-flight failure, with an issue during the launch causing the rocket to not reach orbit and crash into the ocean.
The company has been looking for new funds for several months, with majority owner Sir Richard Branson unwilling to fund the company further.
Virgin Orbit was spun out of Branson’s Virgin Galactic in 2017 and counts the billionaire as its largest stakeholder, with 75% ownership. Mubadala, the Emirati sovereign wealth fund, holds the second-largest stake in Virgin Orbit, at 18%.
The company hired bankruptcy firms to draw up contingency plans in the event it is unable to find a buyer or investor. Branson has first priority over Virgin Orbit’s assets, as the company raised $60 million in debt from the investment arm of Virgin Group.
On the same day that Hart told employees that Virgin Orbit was pausing operations, its board of directors approved a “golden parachute” severance plan for top executives, in case they are terminated “following a change in control” of the company.
Historic UAW election picks reform leader who vows more aggressive approach to auto negotiations
Supporters wave signs during an address at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 5, 2012 on the second day of the Democratic National Convention (DNC).
Mladin Antonov | AFP | Getty Images
DETROIT – United Auto Workers members have ousted their president in the union’s first direct election, ushering in a new era for the prominent organized labor group ahead of negotiations later this year with the Detroit automakers.
The union’s new leader will be Shawn Fain, a member of the “UAW Members United” reform group and local leader for a Stellantis parts plant in Indiana. He came out ahead in a runoff election by hundreds of votes over incumbent Ray Curry, who was appointed president by union leaders in 2021.
Fain, in a statement Saturday, thanked UAW members who voted in the election. He also hailed the election results as a historic change in direction for the embattled union, which he says will take a “more aggressive approach” with its employers.
“This election was not just a race between two candidates, it was a referendum on the direction of the UAW. For too long, the UAW has been controlled by leadership with a top-down, company union philosophy who have been unwilling to confront management, and as a result, we’ve seen nothing but concessions, corruption, and plant closures,” Fain said.
Curry, who previously protested the narrow election results, said in a statement that Fain will be sworn in on Sunday and that Curry is “committed to ensuring that this transition is smooth and without disruptions.”
“I want to express my deep gratitude to all UAW staff, clerical support, leaders and most of all, our union’s active and retired members for the many years of support and solidarity. It has been the honor of my life to serve our great union,” Curry said.
More than 141,500 ballots were cast in the runoff election that also included two other board positions, a 33% increase from last year’s direct election in which neither of the presidential candidates received 50% or more of the votes.
The election was overseen by a federal monitor, who did not immediately confirm the results. The election results had been delayed several weeks due to a run-off election as well as the close final count.
Shawn Fain, candidate for UAW president, is in a run-off election with incumbent Ray Curry for the union’s highest-ranking position.
Jim West for UAW Members United
Fain’s election adds to the UAW’s largest upheaval in leadership in decades, as a majority of the union’ s International Executive Board will be made up of first-time directors who are not part of the “Administration Caucus” that has controlled the union for more than 70 years.
Fain and other members of his leadership slate ran on the promise of “No corruption. No concessions. No tiers.” The last being a reference to a tiered pay system implemented by the automakers during recent negotiations that members have asked to be removed.
The shuffle follows a yearslong federal investigation that uncovered systemic corruption involving bribery, embezzlement, and other crimes among the top ranks of the UAW.
Thirteen UAW officials were convicted as part of the probe, including two past presidents. As part of a settlement with the union in late 2020, a federal monitor was appointed to oversee the union and the organization held a direct election where each member has a vote, doing away with a weighted delegate process.
For investors, UAW negotiations with the Detroit automakers are typically a short-term headwind every four years that result in higher costs. But this year’s negotiations are anticipated to be among the most contentious and important in recent memory.
Fain has said the union will seek benefit gains for members, advocating for the return of a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, as well as raises and job security.
The change in the UAW comes against the backdrop of a broader organized labor movement across the country, a pro-union president and an industry in the transition to all-electric vehicles.
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