Can Remote Technology Solve the Restaurant Labor Shortage?

This is one of those ideas where the timing just feels perfect.

Imagine pulling up to a fast-food drive-thru late one evening. In a tone conveying both guilt and shame, you order a double cheeseburger, large fries, and a jumbo chocolate shake.  You wince a little as you say the word “jumbo” out loud. The soothing voice at the other end confirms the order. And then, after a pregnant pause, kindly asks, “will that be all?”

What you didn’t know, and may never know, what that the person behind that voice wasn’t present at the store. She was home, in her kitchen, taking orders remotely to help the fast-food joint get through a rush period. This is a job she couldn’t, or wouldn’t do in person. But from the comfort of her kitchen? Sure, she’ll pick up the odd shift for a few extra bucks.

From this insight, a company called Bite Ninja has just raised a $675,000 pre-seed round led by Y Combinator, AgFunder, and Manta Ray, according to TechCrunch.

Bite Ninja came about when co-founder Will Clem needed to help out one of his Memphis fast food joints during a busy shift, so he dialed into the store’s ordering system from his laptop and started taking orders from home. The customers had no idea. Only the kitchen staff knew.

This experience led Clem and his co-founder Orin Wilson to form a company and turn that one-time hack into a real product that can help restaurants use remote workers at scale.

Bite Ninja was formed in 2020 but didn’t roll out its product until March 2021. The company has 3,000 “ninjas” working remotely. And the solution is already in use in a few thousand stores.

Chipotle Advances the Order-Ahead Era

A Well-Timed Solution

Bite Ninja is coming along right in the midst of a labor shortage that is plaguing a variety of industries. But few have been hit harder than fast food and retail. There are a lot of theories on why this labor shortage exists. But the shortage is real. As CNBC recently reported, service-oriented businesses are pulling out all the stops to find workers.

Chipotle is raising its hourly wage. Denny’s is sending a giant truck out on a “hiring tour”. And Walmart is paying bonuses to warehouse workers. And on and on. There’s a good debate on how long hourly workers will hold all the cards. But, for now, they have a pretty good hand.

Talent Upgrade?

It’s interesting to think about how remote tools like this can address longer-term issues in the restaurant space. An old argument against raising the minimum wage was that as wages rise, corporations will find ways to replace workers with technology. We see this every day with self-checkouts at grocery stores and electronic toll booths, etc.

For restaurants, it’s been more difficult to replace workers with robots. There are examples of it, certainly. We’re all seen the kiosks in McDonald’s and the iPad menus at airport restaurants and so on. These do not seem to have caught fire because they are not great customers experiences. People still want to be served by people.

Bite Ninja doesn’t replace labor with machines, at least not yet, but it does expand the labor pool for QSRs. According to the Tech Crunch article, many of the “ninjas” are older workers or stay-at-home moms with customers service experience. Maybe this platform has the potential to improve CX by giving fast-food restaurants access to workers who have a strong customer service ethic but just don’t want to come into work at a hot, noisy restaurant and stand on their feet all day.

And Bite Ninja’s website does appear to be selling restaurants a talent upgrade. The “Bite Ninja Method” emphasizes, for example, that its cashiers are well-trained “upsell experts” who deliver 100% order accuracy. The company claims its Ninjas deliver $40-$60 in upsold revenue each shift.

Bite Ninja is interesting and original. But it’s too early to predict this will take off. As we often say, we’ll keep an eye on this one.

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