Is Automation The Answer To Labor Issues?

I learn a lot about foodservice reality from my pizza man, Leonardo. We’ve been chatting about the business for nearly 20 years. He’s a good operator and makes great food. He and his brother own three stores. They have a very broad menu of pastas, sandwiches, ribs, salads, even gelato. He makes every type of pizza imaginable, including artisan Neapolitans, which he does in a display kitchen with a hearth oven and its own prep table.

Usually an employee mans the artisan station. But last week, it was Leo himself. So, I asked him, “Why’re you making the artisan pies?” “Can’t find help,” was his response. Since we have a story on automation coming in July and because I know that labor costs and availability are the most critical issues for operators these days, I gave him a call a couple days later.

“Labor costs are up because you have a diminished workforce,” Leo told me, referring gently to the issues around immigration. “I can’t find people who are able to do the intense work in the kitchen. Kitchens have always been staffed with immigrants because they need the jobs. It’s how my family got in the business.”

Leo sees more pressure on labor costs because “We need higher skilled folks. All our dough is hand-stretched, we’re making all kinds of different pies, we use raw, not pre-cooked sausage. Our people have to know what they are doing.”

And he adds there is a limit to how much he can raise prices to cover the higher labor costs. He is competing against all the chains with their pre-formed crusts, conveyor ovens and $5 pizza deals. And there are certain tasks all pizza operations have. It’s very hard to automate pizza prep. Put all this together and Leo says “You just can’t automate quality in an operation such as mine.”

But he says the labor shortage and rising labor costs are an “epidemic.” Everyone he knows-including other operators, landscapers, general contractors and the like-has the same problem. The problem is so big for Leo, he quit advertising a couple years ago. He says he just can’t handle any more customers. “We just don’t have the manpower. I have to turn away people and orders all the time.”

Now some foodservice processes have been and can be automated. Conveyor ovens, food processors, and other cutters and choppers have been around a long time. Programmable controls have had a huge impact cooking control and processes. Even Leo uses a sheeter for some crusts. As the article in our July issue will show, equipment manufacturers are working very hard to automate the processes that can be automated.

But we also have to realize there are many foodservice processes that are very difficult or impossible to automate. And foodservice will always depend on a trained workforce, willing to work hard in the heat and intensity of the kitchen. As Leo says, “You can’t automate quality.”


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Robin Ashton


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