Restaurants in 2019: striking the right balance between staff and technology

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The UK restaurant industry is in a state of uncertainty – and it shouldn’t come as any surprise. There are only a few short months before the country’s expected exit from the EU, and we still don’t know exactly what that will entail. In the event of an extremely soft Brexit deal, the UK will retain unimpeded access to the single market and the vast number of EU workers who can move, work, and live freely across national borders. However, in the event of no deal, it’s anticipated that the situation will be rather different.

But there hasn’t been definitive movement in either direction, and this is having its own consequences.

Brexit blues?

A labour market report from CIPD and Adecco compared Q1 2016 and Q1 2017 vs. Q1 2017 and Q1 2018 – with the more recent year seeing a 95 per cent fall in the number of EU workers

coming to the UK.

Without making any specific judgments about what Brexit will entail, it’s probably no coincidence that the closer it gets, the less likely these would-be employees are to make the journey. The EU allows workers to move seamlessly within the 28-member bloc, and if it doesn’t continue after the UK leaves, then visa requirements may become a significant barrier to anyone looking to make the jump. The rules around General Work Visas, for example, exclude people who earn less than £30,000 and don’t have £945 in their bank accounts – workers need to have this amount in reserve to prove that they’re financially comfortable enough to make the trip.

This could well have an effect on quick service restaurants (QSRs) and other eating establishments – potentially throttling a reliable source of labour. A KPMG report suggests that a quarter of employees in the UK’s restaurant and hospitality industries are from the EU, amounting to some three million workers.

More with less

However, Brexit isn’t the only pressure that the restaurant industry faces: notable restaurants in the mid-market are closing branches due to financial pressures and a decline in consumer confidence. Operational costs, property prices and business rates are all going up. Deliveroo, UberEats, and their competitors in the home delivery space are (quite literally) eating their lunch. Through some combination of these factors, more than 10,000 UK restaurant workers lost their jobs last year.

The tricky part? These staff were still, for the most part, probably still required. Dining establishments need qualified employees to keep their branches running, deliver superior customer experience, minimise waiting times, and remain competitive in saturated markets.

The question for decision makers in the restaurant industry is simple. How can an establishment do more with less in 2019?

Augmenting staff – not replacing them

The obvious answer seems to be ‘use technology’. And yet, it’s not quite as clear cut as that.

For one thing, there have been concerns about the possibility that staff in more manual roles could be replaced wholesale by technology. Automation is already improving efficiency and the potential of artificial intelligence may drive further gains in future, but there has long been concern around the human costs of these advances.

That said, talk of restaurants without human staff is premature – and unlikely, in any case. The best-performing establishments will be those which balance experience-enhancing human employees with experience-enhancing technology.

Routine, manual processes can be improved or automated, and decisions that might otherwise require guesswork or rudimentary analysis can be driven by sophisticated data analytics. The ‘human touch’ is still important; it just doesn’t need to be applied to every aspect of the in-restaurant customer experience.

Machines may be able to take and deliver orders, but there’s so much more to dining out than placing and receiving them. Ensuring that the patron, at all stages of the journey, is happy with their food and with their service, is what encourages brand loyalty – and it’s something you can’t get always from a machine, or indeed from a home delivery app. The time staff spend memorising and processing orders is time that could be spent on maximising customer satisfaction: a vital consideration at a time when consumer confidence is rather low.

So instead of memorising or jotting down a patron’s burger order – no onions, no mayo (or was that no lettuce?), a side of crinkle-cut fries – a restaurant worker can greet guests, arrange promotional displays, resolve customer enquiries, and clean tables for the next group of customers. These tasks have always been important, and they are much easier to perform and fulfil consistently when they don’t have to think about managing an ever-increasing queue.

Tech benefits

While maximising staff flexibility and manoeuvrability, the technology also eases the pressure on restaurants that are feeling financially pinched. By reducing labour costs and enhancing productivity with intelligent point of sale (POS) systems, a smaller number of employees can serve a larger number of customers – or, with the help of self-ordering kiosks and tableside ordering tablets, empower customers to serve themselves. This will put more control in the hands of restaurant patrons, it improves the overall experience, and it alleviates the need for a full complement of staff.

Beyond its front of house applications, kitchen technologies can be integrated with POS and kiosk systems to speed up order delivery – allowing a well organised, increasingly productive kitchen to operate with fewer staff. Point of sale and kiosk systems also offer benefits from an operational/management perspective: collecting data about sales and customer habits, which can be harnessed to better understand the performance of menu items, inventory management, and the efficiency of customer service. This will drive more informed decisions in future.

The future dining experience: more human, less hassle

The aforementioned technologies are designed to be highly intuitive and highly accessible: they’re created to emphasise a strong user experience and allow staff to get up to speed quickly and easily. This saves money on training costs – but it also ensures that, in an industry with high employee turnover, the next generation of kitchen and front of house staff can become quickly acquainted with the tools of their trade.

That said, however much technology mid-market restaurants and QSRs do or do not choose to implement, they must maintain a strong emphasis on the human touch. It’s possible to automate ordering, but it’s not possible to automate customer satisfaction. Whatever impact Brexit has on the labour market and the industry at large – be it vast or negligible – this basic principle will remain firmly in place. Striking the right balance between technological innovation and human service will be crucial for dining establishments in 2019, and for many years to come.

Jurgen Ketel, Managing Director EMEA, Givex
Image Credit: Flyt