Business First Look

Coming to a Wendy's near you: Self-ordering kiosks?

The fast-food franchise says that it plans to install self-ordering kiosks at about 1,000 locations by the end of the year.

The outside of a Wendy's restaurant in Providence, R.I., is seen in this photo.
Michael Dwyer/AP/File | Caption

Wendy’s fast-food chain is set to open self-ordering kiosks at 1,000 outlets by the end of 2017.

The kiosks have already been given a trial run at several locations in central Ohio – the company’s home state – but this expansion will mean about 16 percent of its restaurants boast such automated facilities. The shift represents the latest development in the wider world of automation, a phenomenon some say is a clear threat to jobs, with others arguing that the truth is far more nuanced.

"They are looking to improve their automation and their labor costs, and this is a good way to do it," Darren Tristano, a vice president with Technomic, a food-service research and consulting firm, told The Columbus Dispatch. "They are also trying to enhance the customer experience. Younger customers prefer to use a kiosk."

Three kiosks can be set up in a given restaurant for about $15,000, a cost that would likely be recouped within two years, as David Trimm, the chain's chief information officer, told investors last week, the Dispatch reports. And according to Mr. Tristano, instead of replacing jobs, the machines may simply shift labor into other areas – at least initially.

Yet the kiosks are just the beginning: Further down the line, mobile ordering and payment is expected to overtake both kiosks and cash registers.

With automation apparently creeping into more and more facets of the workplace, concerns about workers’ opportunities appear to be well-grounded. But some observers say the reality is far less clear-cut.

“Journalists and even expert commentators tend to overstate the extent of machine substitution for human labor,” David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass., wrote in a 2015 paper. Automation can often “increase productivity, raise earnings, and augment demand for labor,” he added.

One of the industries at the forefront of new technology adoption is aerospace, with drones perhaps the clearest current example of how automation is heralding a new era. Yet, as Laurent Belsie reported for The Christian Science Monitor last year, “a funny thing happened on the way to aerospace’s future”:

The automation that was supposed to obliterate tens of thousands of jobs seems on closer examination less like a steamroller and more like a water flume, full of twists and turns that will transform jobs in unexpected ways. It will replace some positions and create new ones, not as some irresistible force but shaped by what consumers want, how governments regulate, and the evolution of cultural norms.

Like much of automation, the drone “hasn’t replaced the humans, but it has made them more efficient,” Dan Leclair, a retired Air Force colonel who teaches a course on drones at the University of Maine, told the Monitor in December. 

As for Wendy’s, only time will tell how the experiment with self-ordering kiosks really affects the job market. But for Bob Welcher, the president of Restaurant Consultants Inc., they hold some distinct advantages, as The Columbus Dispatch reported: "They always are courteous. They always show up for work on time."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.