This story was originally published on Civil Eats.
In 2021, I worked in a restaurant that promoted itself as the future of dining. Diners would sit down and immediately download an app to browse the menu, place their order, and pay with a credit card, all on their phones. As a server my job was not only to prepare drinks and run food, but to assist customers in navigating the technology, troubleshooting when it didn’t work, and explaining, repeatedly, why exactly our restaurant did things that way — and I didn’t exactly have a good answer. Things could sour quickly, and the customers often left frustrated and hungry. Some days I went home feeling like a punching bag, and an unwitting symbol of a broader cultural shift.
Like much of the world, new and ever-changing technology is a fact of life for restaurant workers. From the COVID-19 lockdown and the wave of resulting closures to the recession and labor shortages, the restaurant industry has been on a rollercoaster ride over the last several years. As restaurant owners search for solutions, many are turning to automation and other technology designed to replace humans as a silver bullet. But what does it mean for workers?
Disrupters and the Silicon Valley Effect
As startups have “disrupted” the restaurant industry, they’ve replaced menus and hand-written orders with kitchen display systems (KDS), ordering tablets, and QR codes. Tablets on tables have also proliferated in chain restaurants like Olive Garden and Applebee’s, offering customers games to amuse children, and the ability to order desserts and appetizers. It’s yet another indication that Silicon Valley’s executives see restaurants as places to consume, not to connect.
While some customers thrill at the idea of a robot bringing their food to their table, or the efficiency of an ordering kiosk, what fosters loyal customers is the quality of the food and drink and the human relationships they build. Mom-and-pop restaurants are thriving after the pandemic, “the personal connections [the customer] has made with the staff and other diners keep him coming back,” according to one reporter.
When met with online menus and QR code, customers who are uncomfortable navigating technology often find themselves alienated from the dining experience, too embarrassed to ask for help. For customers who don’t have a smartphone, it sends an unambiguous message about who belongs in the restaurants of the future. For servers, baristas, and other food industry employees, it can already feel like we’re competing with customers’ phones for their basic respect.
And while digital payment systems increase tipping rates, it can be impossible to know how much of your tip will make it into the server’s hands, unlike with old-fashioned cash. My coworkers tell horror stories about tip theft by owners who take as much as 20 percent for themselves, or tip-out structures where chefs or managers take significant cuts.
And when customers don’t tip, servers can end up paying out of pocket to pad a manager’s paychecks. The switch to automation has put more money in the owners’ wallets and less in the hands of the low-level workers who earn a tipped minimum wage as low as $2.13 an hour in some states.
Indeed, paper menus and hand-written orders were never the problem with the industry — it’s the working conditions, wage theft, and lack of benefits. And these are all problems that tech cannot fix.
“Restaurants don’t provide the minimum wage or job protections. There’s no paid leave, there’s no sick leave. There’s no health insurance. Rather than addressing the real problem, the restaurants are now looking for new ways of getting around labor issues,” said Anthony Advincula, director of communications for Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC) United, an organization that fights for the rights of restaurant workers across the U.S.
Thriving restaurants are not those with the latest technology — they’re ones that invest in their employees. Restaurants like Bell’s in Los Alamos, California, offer paid time off, a living wage, and health care to their workers — and that investment in their workers has helped them succeed where many have failed.
Handing Over Our Agency to Machines
Tech has a place in restaurants — point of sales, online reservations, and waitlist websites make running a restaurant easier. But relying on technology in a way that removes agency from the humans in the equation is hell on workers. It also often bypasses one of the central joys of dining out: human connection.
App-based service, robotic servers, and other forms of automation also often require employees to be digital interpreters. Restaurant work comes with enough stress already: drunk people, balancing plates, and keeping up with requests for more napkins, more ketchup, another round. Adding the stress of shepherding a customer through brand new technology is a weight we shouldn’t have to bear.
And while business owners will tell you that technology saves workers time and energy, they’re reaping the most benefit.
“The rise of technology in the restaurant industry is mainly for the owners,” said Advincula, who points to the fact that while the “Great Resignation” has affected all industries, hospitality was hit the hardest.
“The restaurant industry has lost 5 million jobs,” Advincula said. “Chains like McDonald’s or Applebee’s are avoiding their responsibility to provide job protections to workers.”
Servers, dishwashers, line cooks, bartenders, and chefs already work long hours on unpredictable schedules. Women make up more than half the workforce and people of color and women are more likely to be in low paid positions in the industry, while white men hold the more prestigious and high-earning positions, and workers of color make up more than half of back-of-house employees. One-third of undocumented workers in the U.S. work in food service, and they often work in invisible, but essential, positions.
As technology is promoted as a salve for all kinds of problems, many food industry workers are fighting for basic rights and dignity.
Starbucks is a good example. During the pandemic, mobile ordering at the national coffee chain skyrocketed, making up a quarter of all orders. Baristas I spoke to told me that mobile ordering prioritizes speed, and mobile orders are more likely to have a large number of special requests. As any barista or line cook will tell you, these modifications slow down workers as they prepare drinks and meals.
The increase in mobile ordering has led to burnout amongst baristas, who are increasingly voting to join unions, along with other workers across the hospitality and food service sector. Over the last couple years, workers at businesses from distilleries to doughnut shops to coffee chains to fast food restaurants have successfully won unionization votes.
Multiple baristas I spoke with described how mobile ordering oriented them toward speed and volume rather than cultivating relationships with customers. At its best, coffee shops offer a “third place” that fosters community and gives people a place to belong. Mobile ordering has turned many cafés into coffee vending machines.
“Management really emphasized how important Starbucks being a third place was, being that space where you connect with your friends, that space between home and work where you can gather,” said Jo, a former Starbucks barista who asked to go by their first name only. They worked for Starbucks in Vancouver, B.C. between 2018 and 2019, as mobile ordering was rolled out in stores.
Since the introduction of mobile ordering, however, Jo said customers tend to grab their coffee and leave without interacting with staff — unless there’s a problem. Customers also tend to get frustrated by delays, as they assume mobile ordering will be faster and more efficient, and they take it out on burned-out, overwhelmed baristas.
“Those points of connection get lost in mobile ordering. So, it’s just like, ‘Here’s your order, bye,’” Jo said. “The experience is so frustrating for both baristas and customers; I don’t know what purpose it serves anymore outside of increasing profits.”
As we emerge from the early days of the pandemic, customers returning to restaurants are especially likely to be seeking human interaction. When it comes to complex problem solving, human beings are much more adept than bots at dealing with customer complaints, questions, and problems that come with serving the public. While a kiosk can tell you what menu items are gluten-free or vegan, it won’t be able to tell you its favorite dessert or recommend a great spot for live music. And for workers, moments of connection make a difficult job a little easier.
As a server, I’ve seen customers struggle to communicate, awkward and nervous as they admit this is their first time in a restaurant since before the pandemic began. Technology can widen this gap and alienate customers further. And for workers, our labor is often rendered invisible, and therefore not worth compensating. When customers order via app, for example, it can seem like servers aren’t working as hard for the customers. Customers are already mostly unaware of the amount of physical and mental labor involved in making a restaurant run efficiently — and technology obscures that further.
As Advincula points out, invisibilizing this labor also makes it harder for workers to connect and it makes labor law violations less visible. This is particularly true for gig economy workers who deliver food for GrubHub, UberEats, and other apps. These workers spend their whole days and nights working on their own, which makes them some of the most atomized, as they battle health and safety concerns and take home less than minimum wage.
In the case of Instacart, wages are determined by an algorithm, putting workers at the whim of technology more than ever. And while delivery people in some states have been organizing for more rights and better pay, many are still struggling to make ends meet.
“It’s increasingly difficult for workers to organize and build power,” Advincula said.
And yet while the rise of technology to replace workers in restaurants can feel like a losing battle, there is a growing movement to improve these worker’s lives.
“Restaurant workers deserve safer work environments. They deserve time for healing and rest,” said Advincula. He and ROC United are advocating for a restaurant worker’s bill of rights that places humans over technology. Other organizations are advocating to abolish tipped minimum wage.
Meanwhile, the Restaurant Organizing Project supports food service workers in organizing their restaurants, connecting them to resources and other workers. Campaigns like these offer more for workers than a tablet, a QR code, or a robot ever will.
• Op-ed: I’m a Restaurant Worker, Not a Robot [Civil Eats]