Saturday, March 26, 2016

Bionic Burgers

I was in a hurry.

No time for a leisurely lunch.  If I was to be fed, it would be fast food, coronary ramifications notwithstanding.

So I happened upon a Carl’s Junior and while I’m no expert on fast food fare I remembered having a burger there once upon a time and thought it was decent. It sure seemed a better choice than the McMystery Meat they were serving at a competing joint down the street.

I ordered something called the Western Bacon Cheeseburger, a good sized patty slathered in barbecue sauce and topped with bacon and onion rings. With a Lipitor chaser.

It was tasty enough and met my high standards for a burger:  the juice ran down my arms and dripped off my elbows.

It was served up by a friendly staff that performed a continuous culinary ballet to produce a steady supply of eats for a long line of customers.

They were characters in an act that plays out across the country tens of thousands of times every day. But the curtain may be coming down soon.

That’s because many of the folks who served me my lunch that day will be out of work, if the chain’s CEO has his way.

It seems Andrew Puzder, boss man of CKE Restaurants, has been thinking out of the box lately. And he wants to develop fully automated, employee free restaurants.

He’s no innovator. Puzder’s motivation is to counter increases in the minimum wage. He doesn’t like the idea and explains, “If you're making labor more expensive, and automation less expensive — this is not rocket science."

Of course, there’s an added benefit of replacing people with machines: "They're always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there's never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case,” Puzder says.

Yeah, but if you want room temperature brie instead of processed American cheese on your burger, can a machine handle it? And what happens if a circuit blows and you get ketchup in your vanilla shake? Which machine handles the complaints? What happens if a less-than-computer-literate customer accidentally punches in an order for 25 burgers? Does he confront the soulless unblinking eye of a mechanized order taker?  

There are some more pressing questions.

CKE currently owns or franchises about 3,600 restaurants in the United States and 33 foreign countries, generates $1.4 billion in annual revenue and, with its franchisees, employs more than 75,000 people in the U.S.

That’s a lot of people to throw out into the street. It’s also a group that because of poor pay frequents cheap fast food restaurants which in a strange twist could see a loss of business if their clientele is unemployed.

And automating 3600 restaurants?  I’m betting that the considerable cost will be passed onto the customer in the form of higher prices. Why not simply raise prices to offset labor costs? 

I’m also thinking that Mr. Puzder will learn that machines need care and feeding, just like humans do. He won’t be hiring the army of technicians he’ll need to maintain his robotic restaurant chain at minimum wage.

Then there’s the fact that we’ve been down this road before. It was a dead end.

In the previous century, automats, restaurants where simple foods and drink were served by vending machines, were all the rage. There were 40 in New York City alone. But the novelty and the quality of the food declined and the franchises were sold to, ironically enough, Burger King. Which now could become modern-day automats.

Here’s something else to consider: Scholars at Oxford have predicted the computerization of almost half of the jobs now performed by humans, as soon as the 2030s. In the next two years alone, global sales of service robots are expected to exceed 35 million units, according to the International Federation of Robotics. 

And think about this scary morsel from Atlantic magazine as you savor your filet-o-fish sandwich: while robots are poised to help improve and even save human lives, people are left grappling with what’s at stake. A robot car might be able to safely drive you to work, but, because of robots, you no longer have a job.

A rational voice in this debate is provided by Darren Tristano, a food industry expert with the research firm Technomic.  He told CNN that digital technology will "slowly, over time, create efficiency and labor savings" for restaurants. But he guessed that work forces would only drop as a result by 5% or 10% at a maximum in the decades to come, however, given the expectations that customers have for the dining experience.

"If you look at the thousands of years that consumers have been served alcohol and food by people,” he said, “it's hard to imagine that things will change that quickly."

I hope he's right.  In the meantime, we have more to fear from the Andrew Puzders of the world than robots.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector1.

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