Buying a Franchise

Restaurant Franchisees, Are There Robots in Your Future?

Horn_&_Hardart_automatIn 2013, a couple of academics named Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne tried to calculate the likelihood that certain occupations in the U.S. would be automated in the future. Fast food franchise businesses were among the areas in which computerization seemed likely to the authors.

Could robots serve customers at fast-food restaurants, and if so, what does that mean for people considering a franchise business opportunity of this kind?

Frey and Osborne identified a number of characteristics that made jobs more likely to require humans, including high levels of physical skill, creativity, and social intelligence. They figure choreographers’ jobs are fairly safe, while people who prepare tax returns (another common franchise business opportunity) are highly likely to be replaced by robots.

It is possible that many restaurant jobs could be described as requiring limited physical skill and creativity, but it seems possible that social skill matters. Food continues to be a largely social experience, and vending machines won’t smile at you.

Bamn!, a new take on the now-extinct Automat, which served food automatically long before McDonald’s, hopes that their better quality food will appeal — however, it requires some humans to create that food, to make sure items are removed before they stand too long, and to serve certain kinds of food.

McDonald’s has touch screen ordering in some of their European franchises and some Asian chains are also using this technology. Both Japan and China, historically more comfortable with robots than the U.S., already have robot cooks. Human beings still typically serve the food, though.

In addition to the question of whether robots could successfully replace humans in the jobs, the researchers also considered the wages offered. While it has been suggested that the potential rise in the minimum wage could encourage employers to choose robots over humans, Frey and Osborne determined that low-wage jobs are actually more likely to be automated than those that pay more.

Investing in automation to replace a more costly worker would pay off faster, but it may be that the wages for a job reflect the perceived value of the job closely enough that higher-paying jobs seem important enough for a human being to do, even if they could in fact be done automatically. Emergency room nurses, for example, would fit the profile of computerizable jobs, but are not likely to be replaced by robots soon.

Suppose that robots are in the fast-food future, what would that mean for a prospective franchisee?

  • There would certainly be costs involved in retrofitting restaurants, but franchisors might take on part of that investment.
  • Hiring and supervision would become less important, both in terms of skills required of franchisees and in terms of time spent on those tasks.
  • While a restaurant could perhaps be staffed only by a machine operator and an owner or manager, that owner/manager would have the entire burden of the social interaction people expect with a meal.

Should this be on your mind right now if you’re looking for a franchise business opportunity? Probably not. While Frey and Osborne predict a 97% probability that these jobs will be automated within the next 20 years, it probably won’t happen this year. It might, however, be worth considering how willing you would be to work with a higher level of automation in the future, if you’re thinking about a fast food franchise now.

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