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Robots lend function to everyday operations

Automation has opened up in recent years as foodservice operators across the country grapple with labor shortages. Robots deliver food trays to patients in hospitals, and they make sushi on college campuses. For some operators, they’re worthwhile to reduce strain on human employees and increase productivity. Here's how robots are being added to the mix. tug hospital robot

Robots roamed the hallways when the University of California San Francisco Medical Center’s new Mission Bay campus opened last year. Though these robots have nicknames like Wall-E and Tuggie McFresh, they’re not a novelty. They’re a solution to a problem that administrators noticed before the hospital even opened: how to efficiently shuttle food trays, waste and other supplies around a vast 600,000-square-foot building.

“We looked at it, and said the task of moving things from A to B may not be the best use of the precious labor resource that we have,” says Dan Henroid, director of the nutrition and food services for UCSF Medical Center. With labor in short supply, it made sense to turn to robots for delivery and allow humans to focus on more intricate tasks. Though the robots cost about $6 million to purchase and retrofit, Henroid expects they’ll pay for themselves in two and a half years due to the savings in employee salaries and benefits.

Customer service—not savings—was the incentive for Colorado State University when its dining services team invested in a $20,000 sushi robot. Elizabeth Poore, director of dining services, says students clamored for the school to expand its in-house sushi program—which was selling 100 to 200 packs of rolls a day at retail dining locations—and include it as an entree option. That kind of growth would have required at least three times the manpower.

Instead, with the help of the sushi robot, two to three employees can produce 600 to 700 packs of sushi a day, Poore says. And though savings wasn’t the reason for adding the robot, Poore does expect a return on investment over time thanks to decreased labor as well as the raw material savings that come from the precision of a machine. “You have to look at the long term,” she says.

Automation also has led to service success at Xavier University in Cincinnati, which installed a pizza ATM just ahead of the fall 2016 semester. More than 500 pies sold in the first two weeks of operation, says Ed Devoid, residential director of Xavier Dining. Staff members prep and freeze pizza bases of dough and sauce in advance to get ahead of the daily rush, and can load up to 70 pies into the ATM at once.

“I’ve been in the business for 600 years, and this summer I learned something new,” Devoid says. Sales also have spiked for Xavier’s non-ATM pizzas as well, which use the same recipe. Sales have jumped from 75 to 100 pies a day in the dining hall to 250 on one fall Friday.

Though automation can be a helpful investment, Henroid notes it doesn’t always make sense—at least not yet. While he’s interested in pizza-makers, the technology is so new that he’s “not ready to jump in on those yet.” Instead, he suggests operators look at mundane tasks—especially anything that might help with worker shortages. “Right now, the hot button is about labor,” he says.

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