Robots Can Save Late-Night Eating, but Not the Late-Night Dining Experience
OttOmate reflects on a Wall Street Journal piece and the joys of midnight eating.
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The Wall Street Journal has a story up today with the headline “Late-Night Diners Go Hungry: Many 24-Hour Food Spots Went Dark; Gas Station Snacks” (story by Heather Haddon).
Thanks to COVID and labor shortages, the number of nighttime dining options are dwindling. From the WSJ post:
Before the pandemic, lines of customers used to pile into Mr. Yadav’s string of Denny’s after bars closed. The bars are open again, but Mr. Yadav said his restaurants are still operating on shortened hours because he lost employees who anchored his nighttime shifts, including students and families who needed flexible schedules.
Locations of other big chains such as McDonald’s Corp. , Subway and Burger King, along with IHOP and BJ’s Restaurants Inc. are also often closing their doors earlier in the evening. Franchisees and company executives said fewer servers, cooks and counter workers are available to staff late night and early morning hours in many areas, and it’s not clear as many customers will be out in the wee hours.
The full article is actually a surprisingly sweet ode to the ritual of late night dining for groups like college students and people working the late late shift. I myself have fond memories of working at bar in college during my summers living in Hawaii. After closing, sidework and clean up, the bartenders, bussers and barbacks would head over to Liliha Bakery at 3 a.m. and order a full breakfast before the sun came up.
Because this is a publication about robots, I immediately thought of how robots can help solve the problem as laid out by The WSJ — but then realized that robots actually can’t solve this problem.
Yes, robots can help — 24-hour stalwarts like Denny’s are using Bear Robotics’ Servi server robot to shuttle food and empty dishes around their restaurants. And one of the reasons White Castle is installing Flippy the frying robot at 100 of its locations is that it helps alleviate late night staffing headaches. And there is a wave of companies like Yo-Kai Express and Piestro bringing ramen and pizza vending machines to market that will operate around the clock. There are even startups like Nommi and Mezli packing whole restaurants-in-a-box that can whip up a full menu of dining options all day long.
But really, these solutions just feed people, and that’s it. Don’t get me wrong — that’s great and valuable and will absolutely change when, what and how we eat. But we still lose an experience.
A server robot helps out human staff, but it doesn’t ask how your day (or night, in this case) was. Sure, a robot server doesn’t fully replace a person waiting tables — your actual server is then freed up to ideally provide more customer service. But there is something missing when your Moon Over My Hammy is wheeled over to you by an autonomous tray on wheels.
And while you can get truly great food from the forthcoming restaurants-in-a-box, there is no booth to cram into with your friends after a concert in which to eat it. Or a diner countertop to sit at with your co-workers who are super high, and proceed to order two breakfasts and ask for a third plate on which to mix both meals together. (Ahhh, the metabolism of youth.)
I’m a big believer that automation and robotics will make better food more widely available for more people. That’s a good thing. But robots can’t replicate the same experiences when eating that food. That’s not a bad thing — it’s just a new thing.