Robots Have Been Taking Our Restaurant Jobs for More Than 100 Years

A blog about business and economics.
Jan. 14 2014 4:15 PM

Restaurant Automation Has Been Eliminating Human Labor for a Century

More machine than restaurant.

Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images

Matt Novak has a great post about how 1989's Back to the Future Part II sparked some press excitement about automation in the fast-food sector. Bottom line, "a McDonald's filled with nothing but robot workers felt just as close (and inevitable) in 1989."

I would actually extend the point quite a bit. It was way back in 1912 that the first Horn & Hardardt automat came to New York City. The idea of these restaurants wasn't to completely eliminate human labor, but it was to sharply cut back on it. No waiters or waitresses. Not even any cashiers. You would, in effect, get your meal from a vending machine. A modern day fast-food restaurant is actually more labor intensive than that, not less, despite the technological progress over the past century.

One key reason for this is that the food service industry operates across a whole wide range of different market segments. Generally speaking, higher-end dining is more labor-intensive than lower-end dining and all forms of food away from home are more labor-intensive than heating up a frozen dinner at home. So when some particular segment of the food service industry changes, the overall composition of Americans' dining habits also shifts. Which is to say that if Chili's figures out how to get by with less human labor, therefore reducing costs, people might respond to lower prices by eating more meals at Chili's and fewer meals at McDonald's. But even this new, less labor-intensive version of Chili's might still be more labor-intensive than a McDonald's.


In other words, over the decades we didn't just get more-and-more automation in our automats—we got whole new dining formats.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.


The Juice

Ford’s Big Gamble

It’s completely transforming America’s best-selling vehicle.

Should the United States Grant Asylum to Victims of Domestic Violence?

The Apple Watch Will Make Everyone Around You Just a Little Worse Off

This Was the First Object Ever Designed

Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 


How the Apple Watch Will Annoy Us

A glowing screen attached to someone else’s wrist is shinier than all but the blingiest jewels.


A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now …

The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.

Is Everyone Going to Declare Independence if Scotland Does It? 

I Tried to Write an Honest Profile of One of Bollywood’s Biggest Stars. It Didn’t Go Well.

Trending News Channel
Sept. 12 2014 11:26 AM Identical Twins Aren’t Really Identical
  News & Politics
Sept. 14 2014 2:37 PM When Abuse Is Not Abuse Don’t expect Adrian Peterson to go to prison. In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 
Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM Olive Garden Has Been Committing a Culinary Crime Against Humanity
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 13 2014 8:38 AM “You’re More Than Just a Number” Goucher College goes transcript-free in admissions.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 12 2014 4:05 PM Life as an NFL Wife: “He's the Star. Keep Him Happy.”
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 12 2014 5:55 PM “Do You Know What Porn Is?” Conversations with Dahlia Lithwick’s 11-year-old son.
Sept. 14 2014 11:44 PM A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now … The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.
Future Tense
Sept. 12 2014 3:53 PM We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often
  Health & Science
New Scientist
Sept. 14 2014 8:38 AM Scientific Misconduct Should Be a Crime It’s as bad as fraud or theft, only potentially more dangerous.
Sports Nut
Sept. 12 2014 4:36 PM “There’s No Tolerance for That” Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh say they don’t abide domestic abuse. So why do the Seahawks and 49ers have a combined six players accused of violence against women?