There’s a storm brewing in the food service industry in quick service restaurants (QSR) and fast casual.

It’s the fear that interactive kiosks will replace employees.

At least that’s one side of the story.

On the other side, once the storm passes, it’s clear skies in and around the self-service kiosks where managers and employers everywhere are saying the digital kiosks are far from a threat.

If anything, they’re an advancement that comes at the request of consumers.

I think you’ll agree with me when I say…

It’s really hard to decide who is right and who is wrong. Different news articles tell different stories.

So you decide: Will kiosks replace employees? Or are we simply seeing advancement in the digital world that is merely a sign of the times?

Where Did The Fight Begin?

The fight began sometime in 2013 when a campaign to boost the minimum wage to $15 dollars an hour brought thousands of low paid workers to the picket lines.

QSR and fast casual workers flooded the streets in various cities, demanding the increase be implemented.

While the protests were made up of primarily QSR and retail chains, workers in other low paying jobs like dollar and convenience stores, home health care, and the transportation industry joined them at the picket lines.

If QSR workers should earn $15 an hour, so should they.

News outlets everywhere latched onto the campaign and began spitting out stories left and right. It was a media frenzy. Every day a new story came out. And every day, the story got bigger and bigger.

And then somewhere along the line it was pointed out that those really neat kiosks that greet you and beckon you quietly when you walk into a fast casual restaurant were the culprit.

They would take over the restaurant industry, some feared, and take jobs away from people everywhere.

Once that piece was introduced into the story, it took off like wildfire. Kiosks became the arch nemesis of QSR workers everywhere. Picket lines grew longer as disgruntled employees grew angrier.

The fight was on. And throughout it all, not a single self-service kiosk was able to speak for itself.

Many Believe QSR Kiosks Will Replace Workers

In an industry that employs 2.4 million wait staff, upwards of 3 million prep cooks and cooks, and close to 3.3 million cashiers, it’s easy to see why so many fear the digital machines.

Every day we can dig up a different story about a QSR or fast casual chain implementing tabletop kiosks or stand alone kiosks.

We learn that sales increase.

We also learn that they are more cost effective.

McDonald’s began implementing kiosks in certain stores in the US in 2015. It was a move that many believe was on purpose. An effort, they said, to remove the issue of angry protestors and replace them with quiet, self-service kiosks.

And while many said the implementation had nothing to do with the proposed minimum wage increase, others believed the kiosks were brought in to rebel against protestors.

It makes sense when you put into perspective the cost of a digital kiosk (or robotic burger flipper, those are out there, too) versus an employee protesting his desire to be paid $15.00 an hour. About 30 percent of restaurant industry costs come from employee salaries alone, so kiosks or robots are an enticing and popular choice for many restaurant chains.

I’ll let you do the math to determine which has the better value, a human or a kiosk, based on these stats:

– A self-service touch screen kiosk can cost around $3,000 to $10,000. This cost doesn’t include the CMS software.

– The salary of a full-time fast casual employee being paid the national hourly rate of $7.20 – $9.33 is $15,017 – $19,832.

Kiosks aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. As a matter of fact, they are evolving every day. Consider that before 2016 is over, McDonalds will be rolling out new kiosks that boast “Create Your Taste” touchscreen kiosks where customers can create the burger of their dreams, no human interaction required.

After all, who needs an employee to take that kind of custom order when a super cool touchscreen can do it?

Many Say QSR Kiosks WILL NOT Replace Workers

While voices everywhere claim the implementation of kiosks will eliminate jobs, there is a different voice on the other side of the fence that says this just isn’t the case.

There are two thoughts here…

One is that the kiosks are the remedy to replace angry workers that want $15 dollars an hour.
The other is that the kiosks will eventually replace workers period.

To address the question that the kiosks are a solution to replace workers demanding $15 an hour, many articles written on the subject point out that McDonald’s was testing kiosks in Europe years ago.

In May of 2011, Kiosk Marketplace published an article that stated McDonald’s in Europe had no plans of cutting employees, despite the installation of more than 840 kiosks, and despite the stories news outlets published.

In an email from a McDonald’s spokesperson regarding the concern, the spokesperson said,

“Front counters remain a focal point of service where we have installed self-order kiosks, and customers can decide whether they wish to place their order at the counter or through kiosks. Staff are on hand in the dining area to assist customers using the kiosks.”

Labor costs were not mentioned in the article.

If you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, what about the U.S.? Isn’t this where the raging debate of minimum wage is brewing?”

Why yes, yes it is.

But in an article published by BuzzFeed, it was made clear that the success of the kiosks in Europe had inspired the chain to consider bringing them to the U.S. and that the minimum wage increase had nothing to do with it.

As far as the kiosks replacing workers altogether, Wendy’s fast casual spokesman Bob Bertini told the online newspaper PhillVoice that kiosks aren’t brought in to replace employees, but to meet the needs of what we, as consumers, want.

“This is primarily driven by consumer demand,” he said. “Customers, particularly young customers, like to be in control. They’re used to doing iPhones and tablets so they like the convenience of using kiosks. And it does help to mitigate some costs.”

So Are They Making $15 an Hour Yet?

The debate of whether or not QSR kiosks will replace employees inspired me to hit the drive-thru at McDonald’s to grab an order of oatmeal.

As I drove to the first window to pay, I saw a stack of brown paper bags shoved toward the glass of the window.

Next to the stack was a roll of large, red stickers.

Once I got my order and drove away, I saw what the stickers stuck to my bag said:

Now Hiring: Starting at $9.75 an hour. 

Interestingly, I was in the middle of writing this blog post when I hit the drive-thru. This sticker told me two things:

1) The kiosks inside were not a threat to workers here.
2) The tiered minimum wage increase was showing up loud and clear.

The increase has been implemented in many states, including New York, where many of the protests began. But the tiered scale approved by Governor Andrew Cuomo isn’t cut and dry. 

Right now, the current minimum wage in New York is $9.00 per hour. Fast food workers in chain restaurants are entitled to a minimum wage of $10.50 in New York City and $9.75 outside of New York City.

When December 31st hits, workers in New York City will receive an increase to $11.00 an hour.
The following year it will be $13.00.
In December of 2018, it will be $15.00

The increase varies from state to state. You can find out how it works in your state by visiting the Department of Labor in your state.

Conclusion

I heard someone say once, “Everyone has an opinion. None of them are right.”

While thousands of people believe that digital signage and kiosks will take workers out of fast-casuals, just as many believe they will not.

Harold Miller, vice president of franchise development for Persona Pizzeria, who also consults for other chains said:

“The problem with the ­minimum-wage offensive is that it throws the accounting of the restaurant industry totally upside down. My position is: Pay your people properly, keep them longer, treat them right, and robots are going to be helpful in doing that, because it will help the restaurateur survive.”

In my own personal opinion, trying to keep technology innovation out of the restaurant industry is impossible. I say this because it’s clear the industry is working hard to keep up with other chains that have already implemented them.

The kiosks are being installed.

Customers like them.

Restaurants are seeing a profit increase.

Technology is here to stay. How we interact and navigate the storm of digital versus human shows up differently everywhere. It’s not entirely predictable.

Again, everyone has an opinion. None of them are right. What is right is that we are entitled to one.

What is your opinion on the question of whether or not QSR kiosks will replace employees? Let us know in the comments below.