With operators battling labour shortages and rising costs, could robots be the answer? MCA explores their current usage, the benefits seen by operators, and the potential for their wider usage in the UK hospitality sector


Not that many years ago you might have been greeted with derision for suggesting that a guest’s meals could soon be delivered to them by a robot. But that is now the reality for customers in some of Las Iguanas, Slim Chickens or Din Tai Fung’s restaurants, for example – with the speed of adoption within the hospitality sector only set to increase as labour shortages continue to plague the industry.

In fact, McDonald’s has taken things a few steps further, recently opening a near fully automated site in Fort Worth, Texas in order to trial various forms of automation in one place.

Walk-in customers can collect their meals from a conveyor belt after ordering from a touchscreen kiosk, while those using the drive-thru can make use of an ‘order ahead lane’ to save time.

No stranger to the innovative use of tech, McDonald’s says the new concept restaurant is “more seamless than ever before”, and while the majority of its features incorporate automation, there is still a human team behind the scenes.

“Could I see a McDonald’s or KFC that is fully automated in the UK? 100%,” Greg Gibbons, central operations director at Big Table Group tells MCA.

“The biggest pressure, and what is driving technology across hospitality, is labour costs and a shortage of people. It’s making everyone look at how they can make their business more efficient going forwards,” he says.

Challenges around recruitment was one of the key reasons behind the group exploring the use of tray service robots in its restaurants. Its first two pilot sites have been using the BellaBot robots for almost 12 months, and such has been their success they have been rolled out to a further eight restaurants, across its Bella Italia and Las Iguanas brands.

“At the first sites we put them in we had been struggling to keep them open every day, for all 14 trading sessions of the week, so we had to think about what we could do to help when nobody was applying for roles,” he says.


The robots essentially do the leg work for the waiting team. While they were previously taking plates to a section, clearing them and taking them back to the pot wash, the service robots are now able to take some of that work off their hands.

“The aim is to allow the team to focus on improving the guest experience and, ideally, selling more,” Gibbons explains. “The more the server is at the table, the better chance they have of selling that extra drink.”

The reaction from guests has been “phenomenal”, he says. “The level of interaction the customers have with the bot is staggering. We purposefully picked the cutest looking bot on the market – it has eyes and looks like a cat. You can stroke it and it will stop and talk to children. You can also send them to a table with a birthday cake and they will sing happy birthday,” he explains.

Boparan Restaurant Group has also been trialling service robots at two of its Slim Chickens sites, with plans to expand trials to other restaurants, including the branded food courts it operates within Sainsbury’s.

Speaking at MCA’s Hostech conference last month, Boparan’s head of IT, Ashleigh Telling, says the group is always looking at ways to improve the customer journey and to make its employees lives easier. “There is a PR element to it too – we want to be the first and to try new things. It’s a bit of fun as well,” she admits.

Like with Big Table, the robots are used for delivering plates to tables and taking dirty plates back to the kitchen, as well as the more novelty elements such as use at functions as champagne carriers.

The great people debate

One of the criticisms levelled at companies that introduce robotics and automation is that they are ‘taking people’s jobs’, but that is not what Boparan is trying to achieve, Telling says. “It’s about technology and humans working together.”

Boparan trials robots in Slim Chickens

With the cost of labour going up, and the inability for operators to recruit in the volumes they need, the sector has realised it has got a systematic problem and needs to look at automation as a way to help supply customers with a product at a price point that is still acceptable, but allows the business to be more efficient and operate in the face of a reduced labour market,” Barney Wragg, chief executive of Karakuri – a back of house robotics and automation supplier– says.

While there has been some criticism of McDonald’s restaurant by members of the public that have alleged it’s the company’s way of avoiding paying a fair wage, Wragg says the global fast food chain has merely been reacting to the situation it is in with regards to a reduced labour pool.

“You can’t really level at McDonald’s that they are not trying to hire people into their restaurants when all across America they are offering financial incentives for people just to turn up to an interview,” he says.

“Restaurant groups are trying to retain staff and motivate them and to try and create career prospects inside their restaurant chains. If automation helps take away the boring repetitive menial tasks and allows staff the opportunity to do more meaningful rewarding work, rather than manning the drive thru ordering station or the chip frying line, that’s a very positive thing.”

The customer experience

Customer acceptance is not necessarily something that operators need to worry about when it comes to robots in restaurants, Stefano Bensi, general manager, SoftBank Robotics says. For example, some QSR operators were pretty sceptical when touchscreen ordering was introduced but the adoption and customer acceptance rate has been really high.

“Where automation helps, improves and makes things better then I think there is the opportunity to embrace it,” he adds.

SoftBank Robotics is a subsidiary of SoftBank Group, which is headquartered in Japan. A lot of the tech it brings to market started in the country, where the population has traditionally been pretty switched on when it comes to tech, but Bensi says there has been increasing traction in countries like the UK.

“We have been launching tray robots in the F&B sectors in Europe over the past few months, but in Asia we have been doing it for quite some time,” he says. “We have a variety of different types of robots, including Pepper – which is like a humanoid robot – and we have a restaurant in Japan that SoftBank owns and which uses Pepper as a host. It knows your reservation and can show you to your table and give you instructions for accessing the menu system if QR code based, and then the tray robots will deliver the food.”


In Europe he says operators are more inclined to keep the personal interaction between the waiting staff and the guests but reduce the amount of time that person is going backwards and forwards to the kitchen.

Learning on the job

Gibbons says that while it has taken time to understand the data it has and what the use of the robots does to it as a business and its business model, the group definitely sees that further benefits could be gained from a wider roll out.

In the two sites that have been using the robots for nearly a year several longer-term trends have emerged, including a reduction in staff turnover – particularly within its front of house teams, “which is a reflection of the job being less gruelling”.

One barrier it faces, however, is that the robots are much more suited to certain types of sites in terms of the size and layout. It will also be easier to introduce these kinds of robots to new sites, he adds, however for the traditional casual dining market retrofitting tech is always a struggle and is generally doubly expensive than to put it in at the point of build, he explains.

“The larger a one level site the better. So Centre Parcs for us has the most bots currently because they have the biggest footprint sites. But having had a look through the estate, there is a chunk of it that will never have robots because of the size of the site.”

Likewise, Boparan has learnt that it’s a certain style of service and type of site that really works. It is looking at their uses from the perspective of its QSR brands as opposed to its more casual dining restaurants, such as Giraffe or Carluccio’s. But Telling believes the industry will increasingly go down that route in the future.

She explains that the group was able to integrate the service robots into its restaurants quite seamlessly, without needing to overhaul its processes. It is even looking at trialling a cleaning robot, that can sweep and mop the floors, within Slims as well.

The question of cost

Wragg believes that over the next 24 months we are going to see automation systems in QSR going from being few and far between to commonplace in kitchens. But one of the key factors that will denote the pace at which either back or front of house automation and robots will be introduced is that of cost.


“The key thing that is going to make the technology really acceptable to the mass industry is when it is equal or lower cost than having people do the job. Until we get to that point it is going to be an interesting set of experiments and an interesting set of learning,” he says.

“If in the next Budget announcement next year’s National Minimum Wage is going to go up by another pound, that would speed up the move,” Gibbons adds. “It (the cost of labour) eats massively into our profit margin. We either need to pass that on or we have to do something to mitigate it.”

Big Table Group, which has bought its own robots outright – rather than hire them for a monthly fee, for example – believes they are a cost effective solution. While some of its sites are bigger than others, he says its best performing restaurants see a ROI of within six to nine months.

Aside from cost efficiencies and the addition of extra ‘staff’, Gibbons says that for businesses that adopt near or fully automated models there are also potential opportunities for operations to run through the night. “Even if you had people working during the day, they could run their out of hours service as a fully automated model.”

Peter Martin, contributing editor at MCA, says that in the QSR and fast food end of the sector, where it is more about convenience and speed of service, tech and automation are driving everything. “Whether it’s drive-thrus, licence plate or voice recognition, operators are looking at anything that can make the process as automated and as simple as possible, with the customer in mind,” he says.

While he believes the advancement of technology, such as robotics and automation, is absolutely fundamental to the sector, “it’s a matter of where you deploy it”. Whether businesses are prepared to invest in tech is also a big question,” Martin adds. “I think you have got to have the guts to do it now, because if you keep waiting you will fall behind.”

For Bensi, while guest reaction has been really positive and there are tangible benefits to the use of robots, including cost efficiencies and better service for guests, he believes the rate of adoption will take place at quite different rates and some operators will take it much further than others. “It will be determined by their brand, their target clientele and the experience they want to offer guests.

For McDonald’s, the use of automated restaurants could certainly work in sites like its drive-thrus or motorway service stations for example, he says. Other interesting developments in the world of robotics include vending machines that can offer hot meals, and tech that can automate some of the process of making and mixing cocktails and other drinks.

It seems inevitable that robotics and automation is going to form an increasingly important part of the hospitality and employee experience, but where and how operators implement it will be much more nuanced.