Automation: Are We Taking Employees out of Restaurants?

By Kritvi Kulkarni, QST’22

Since the COVID pandemic struck, it is no doubt that the hospitality industry, including both growing and established companies, has experienced severe disruptions in almost every aspect of the business. In order to maneuver through the atrocities of the pandemic, restaurants are giving more importance to their investments in artificial intelligence and automation. Whilst this has the potential to significantly aid social distancing protocols to which restaurants are required to adhere, there are still concerns about the “humanity” of a machine. Does incorporating technology mean that we are prioritizing convenience over the genuine interaction of people? Are authentic service and technological convenience mutually exclusive objectives? Does automation strip away the mere ‘hospitable’ essence of our beloved hospitality business?

The ‘Automation: Are We Taking Employees out of Restaurants?’ panel, moderated by SHA Assistant Professor Sean Jung, shared engaging discussion between panelists Chandler Properties Samantha DuVall Bechtel [SHA’07], Real Food’s Kealoha Pomerantz [SHA MMH’18], Birdcall Executive Anthony Valletta [SHA’05], and Poll Restaurants co-owner George Poll [SHA’84] and predominantly focused on the future of the intersection between authentic service and artificial intelligence. The four SHA alums, now premier restaurateurs and seasoned national food and beverage experts, discussed possible courses of action for different types of restaurants by comprehending the complexity behind the mere consequences of the COVID pandemic on different sectors of the business. Restaurants that operate at a low capacity utilization level and therefore, prioritize convenience over the quality, are now investing heavily in incorporating machine learning into their daily operations. On the other hand, fine dining restaurants that operate at a high capacity utilization level and care more about quality than speed, are implementing modifications in their business structure to preserve the authenticity behind human interaction as much as possible. Regardless of the type of restaurant, all segments are expected to execute more strenuous sanitization practices to ensure the trust of the customers.

By analyzing the effectiveness of incorporating artificial intelligence into restaurant practices, the Bechtel, Pomerantz, Valletta and Poll also proposed potential alterations in business models that emphasize incorporating technological innovation without reducing the business’s authenticity. Additionally, gaining a competitive advantage over other firms can arguably be the key future strategy to re-establish a business’ position in the market after the pandemic. In order to do so, hospitality practices in the future not only need to be balanced but also need to be embedded with creative innovation. Creative innovation could cover a wide range of aspects such as investing in healthcare technology to abide by safety protocols scrupulously or developing “fun” social distancing activities. Additionally, it is important to acknowledge the possibility of disruptive innovation rising in the post-pandemic world. How do we, as members of society, assure that disruption does not take over creative innovation? How do we ensure that disruption enables creative innovation and that innovation can in and of itself cause disruption?

In addition to referencing the accelerated use of technology in hospitality, the SHA panelists also discussed, actually debated,  the potential changes in consumer behavior. Some believe that the industry faces a threat of an inevitable demise due to people’s additional concern for safety and others believe that the temporary crisis will evoke long-lasting brilliant innovations. Regardless, it is important for businesses to prepare for a segmented market as people’s priorities could fall anywhere in the spectrum which has safety on one end and a drive for new experiences on the other.

Hospitality is an industry that has human interactions and novel experiences deeply rooted in its model. For that reason, employees are an irreplaceable element of the industry and they deserve to feel safe coming to work in such stressful conditions. Whilst artificial intelligence is proposed to be an integral part of the future, it is still important to acknowledge that employees were, are, and always will be the front line of the hospitality industry and should not be compromised, no matter the circumstance.

About the Author

Kritvi Kulkarni, QST’22,  is a rising junior at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. During the Summer of 2020 she studied in Dr. Makarand Mody’s HF 100 Introduction to Hospitality course and was inspired to attend the SHA Summer Conversations Series of topical discussions. The synopsis represents Kritvi’s key take-aways from the engaging dialogue of the ‘Automation: Are We Taking Employees out of Restaurants?’ summer panel held June 8, 2020.

Additional Sources:

Leora Halpern Lanz, Sara Szymanski. “Adaptation: Restaurants Maneuver in Response to COVID-19.” Boston Hospitality Review, June 25, 2020.