Soon, Fast Food Will Be Self-Serve: No Workers

Fries with that? You might be making your next fast-food order on your own, on a screen. Fast-food companies nationwide are beginning to implement self-serve kiosks in their restaurants, citing increases in minimum wage as the reason.

Of course, the idea is that allowing customers to order their own food from a machine instead of a live person results in a significant decrease in labor costs. The forecast is that there may be a worker or two walking around to troubleshoot the ordering process when customers need help but, other than that, the first human involved in your fast-food transaction would be the cooks in the back. McDonald’s and Panera Bread have been testing their kiosks over the past months, and Wendy’s recently announced the implementation of self-serve kiosks throughout all of their restaurants, which total upwards of 6,000 locations.

Since the fast-food industry is the poster child for minimum wage, it is no surprise that it is among the first to begin changing their tactics in response to recent legislation to raise that wage. However, the highly politicized issue of pay is more of a symptom than the actual problem, as legions of entry-level workers struggle to survive in cities priced to high income-earners. Who benefits? Who does it hurt?

Here are some perspectives to consider.

Our world grows more depersonalized. If yet another screen is everywhere we turn, should we really feel good about that? As a teacher who sees students constantly buried in screens of varying sizes, there is something distressing about an additional screen becoming a normal part of their world. Since mobile technology has become a large part of all our lives, I have noticed my own attention span has diminished. Prominent doctors and psychologists maintain that excessive screen time actually damages the brain. How will this affect children trying to pay attention in school?

Capitalism isn’t going to change. If you have a low-skill job, you are replaceable, either by technology or someone else willing to do the work. While the number of order-taker jobs diminish, perhaps the company contracted by Wendy’s or McDonalds to customize their ordering machines is able to hire more people. In this manifestation of our market economy, skilled workers will do better. If we don’t like this, it is up to us to act.

A silver lining? The concept of an order taker may be obsolete, but there will still be trained employees to troubleshoot the new machinery. It is possible that engaging with technology in this way will give these employees transferrable skills that they can use to move up in the company or get a better job elsewhere. 

Kiosks might hurt business. The tendency with new technology is to idealize it. Presumably, McDonalds’ test kiosks allow the company to streamline the process before it rolls out nationwide, but there are still potentially unavoidable issues. What about people who aren’t comfortable with computerized technology? Elderly and differently abled people may have difficulty and be very uncomfortable coming to a restaurant without the guarantee of a human to help them through the process. Yes, there will be troubleshooters, but fewer people available to help overall could mean long lines and aggravated customers. 

Businesses facing higher wage costs have to adjust somehow. We’ve been hearing about the push to increase minimum wage for months. On the Internet and on the streets, Americans have continued to passionately debate the justification for a $15/hour minimum wage, which is the figure presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) supports. To take Wendy’s as an example, a number of their locations are locally owned franchises. According to a recent article on, “It will be up to franchisees whether to deploy the labor-saving technology, but Wendy’s President Todd Penegor did note that some franchise locations have been raising prices to offset wage hikes.”

Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. When we strip it down, a self-serve kiosk taking our order is a neutral event. Instead, consider the implications. As global technology advances, humans have the responsibility of choosing how we allow it into our world. Often, like this case, the implementation of technology is motivated by money; however, if we continue to operate this way and only this way, our world, the poor and our environment will suffer.

—Brett Murphy Hunt



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