If you feel that the staff in your local fast food joint is acting a bit robotic, you might be right on target.
In the wake of the nationwide movement for a $15 per hour fast food wage, companies are quietly experimenting with automated technology. The trend is not new. Last year, Applebee’s announced they were installing automated ordering systems in their 1,860 restaurants; Chili’s is already using them, and Panera is placing self-service kiosks in their locations to allow customers to feed themselves without human interaction.
That’s just the beginning. An outfit called Momentum Machines manufactures a gourmet hamburger cooker that “does everything employees can do except better.” The gadget is capable of producing 360 burgers per hour, and the next generation version will offer custom ground meat for each diner. Even better, the machine won’t go on strike and attract unwelcome national publicity about the unfair labor practices of its owner.
According to several studies conducted by economics professors at major universities, raising the fast food minimum wage to $15 would result in a price increase of 17-18%. This would hike the cost of a $3 hamburger to about $3.55, an increase that many McDonald’s customers could not absorb. The company is already suffering from slipping sales, and has ceded its position at the top of the fast food chain to Subway. Any further decline would likely be catastrophic for stock prices.
Underlying all this, of course, is the delicate issue of what someone’s labor is “worth,” which leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that it’s worth whatever someone else is willing to pay for the fruits of those labors. I’ve worked the grill in a fast food joint, and can attest that the job of cooking burger patties doesn’t require a high level of culinary skill. What’s really robotic here, though, isn’t the actions of the workers but the product they make: a standardized hamburger that allows the customer very little room for choice.
Subway is booming (they’re planning a major global expansion over the next decade), in large part because they allow buyers to customize the product to their personal taste. The burger joints might want to think about that, before they invest in machines to crank out a better version of an item that fewer and fewer people seem to want.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press; his second book, Moonshine Nation, is forthcoming from Lyons Press in July. For more information, go to amazon.com