Are Wendy’s And McDonald’s Automated Kiosks The Wrong Response To A Minimum Wage Hike?


We’ve been obsessed with automata since biblical times. The Greek god Hephaestus had a blacksmiths to make automated beings. King Solomon had a throne with automated animals and birds moving the Torah around. Hell, even the real Greeks had automated owls powered by water siphons.

Automation of the food industry started in Berlin in 1888 when Max Sielaff obtained a patent for his new automaton restaurants. The Automat was a restaurant where a patron would insert a coin into a wall of shelves and drawers. A small door would pop open and you’d have your meal. On the other side of the wall of drawers the staff would work to keep the drawers full of hot food. It was a smashing success. Max had 47 Automat restaurants before taking his patent to the United States in 1902. It was a huge success there too.

The innovation was hailed as the champion of the disenfranchised because it provided cheap, hot food for a tiny price. This led to all vending machines to this day. A device we all but take for granted. Progress is a funny thing. Would any of us give up ATMs if it meant more jobs at the bank? Do we really need a human changing our car’s oil, or can a automaton do that too? Maybe that person’s time is better spent studying to get a better life? Soon there won’t even be cars that need oil, and smartphones will replace ATMs and debit cards. I mean, who doesn’t go straight for self-check in at an airport if they haven’t checked in online already? How often do you use the self-check out at the grocery store?

Wendy’s is currently taking flak for testing automated kiosks. They plan to make 6,000 automated kiosks available to their franchise stores by the end of the year. This isn’t a new thing. McDonald’s has been testing this for years in Romeoville, Illinois, and all over Europe, including Berlin of course. As big corporations are wont to do, they cite the prospect of declining profits due to wage increases (which is impossible in Germany with their justly strict worker’s rights). This is about maximizing profits and increasing safety, full stop. 30% of a restaurant’s costs come from staff. Maintaining iPads and burger flipping robots will cost much, much less. That’s just reality at this point. Also, you don’t have to worry about a robot rubbing your food on its genitals. So there’s that.

There’s been a considerable backlash against McDonald’s and now Wendy’s for this. Curious given that when 100% automated and robotic Eatsa opened in San Francisco it was met with white-privilege glee. Then again, they’re selling quinoa bowls. But, it’s the same thing. They’ve chosen not to hire as many — or any — staff as a regular fast food restaurant to maximize profits for themselves. Let’s not kid ourselves.

It makes sense for McDonald’s in Berlin to become automatized. There is universal health care, education and retirement. If you lose your job at Micky-D’s, you can go back to school for free and learn something new while the state pays your rent, childcare, and health insurance. But that simply is nowhere near reality anywhere in the United States. Unfortunately technology is by-passing basic human rights in the USA. There are going to be a lot of people left behind with no real recourse for forming a new life and career without major sacrifices. That’s just wrong. US policy on basic human rights for its citizens needs to catch up with its advancing technology, fast. It’s sad we’re still arguing in the US about a fair wage for workers the world doesn’t even need anymore.