The Attraction of Food Service Work Is Plummeting. And Delivery Robots are Thriving.

As food service personnel decreased, delivery robots became an asset to many colleges and restaurants. Then, when delivery demand boomed during the pandemic, the robots’ utility increased even more. The robots provide food establishments with cost-effective replacements for deliverers—but they’re not a solution to the low wages that pushed many to leave the food service industry in the first place. Cover graphic by Zoe Neely for Midstory.

You’re writing an essay in the campus library when your stomach rumbles. You pull out your phone and order pizza from the dining hall on an app. Five minutes later, your phone dings with a notification that your food is en route, and it dings again several minutes later to tell you your delivery is arriving. You head outside, where a small robot pulls up next to the library’s doors. You press “unlock” in the ordering app, and the robot’s roof hinges upwards. You grab your pizza box from the robot’s belly, and it says “Thank you!” in a cheerful voice, lowers its roof, then rolls away.

Annika Keeton had heard about these fabled food delivery robots from her older sister at Bowling Green State University (BGSU). But she was still surprised to see lines of six-wheeled, boxy, white rovers rolling down the sidewalks when she arrived at the University last fall as a freshman. Each had a little orange flag jutting upwards from its right side, just in case pedestrians weren’t on the lookout for moving objects. But the precaution wasn’t really necessary; everybody noticed the robots. Students took selfies with them, picked them up if they fell over and sternly told anyone who purposely got in the robots’ way to stop. 

“I thought they were super cute, but I was like, ‘Wow, that seems super futuristic to have robots just roaming around campus,’” Keeton said. 

The rovers were made by Starship, a company that specializes in food delivery robots. BGSU began using the company in 2019, one year before Keeton arrived on campus. And now that she’s spent a full school year around them? 

“At this point, I’m so used to them that I don’t realize how weird it is,” she said. 

Starship was founded in 2014, and after launching the robots in England in 2018, the company expanded to a handful of American colleges, including Ohio’s BGSU and the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW). Starship is one of a number of delivery robots engineered in recent years, many of which conduct delivery on college campuses—like Starship—and others of which navigate cities and neighborhoods. In the Midwest, the company Refraction AI has engineered a robot called REV-1 that many restaurants in Ann Arbor, MI use. And in  June, the company launched a pilot program in Austin, TX.

Starship and Refraction AI tend to be well-liked by the schools and restaurants that utilize them, and contrary to what you might expect, they aren’t replacing human delivery workers. Instead, they’re providing universities and restaurants with a way to get their food into mouths in an era when food service jobs are hard to fill and federal and state governments aren’t enacting policies that would bring workers back.

The good, the bad and the roadblocks

Keeton estimates that she used Starship robots once or twice a week during her second semester at BGSU, when she took difficult classes and worked a lot. 

“They’ve become a super convenient tool for me,” Keeton said. “When I’m in the dorms and it’s raining out and I’m kind of swamped in assignments, it’s really convenient to just order food and get it delivered in 10 minutes.”

She appreciates Starship—the only University-run delivery option at BGSU—for its late-night option, too. With Starship, she can pick up food outside her dorm’s doors rather than walking elsewhere for it.  

“I just don’t like walking at night alone,” Keeton said. “When I would get back from work late, it was 11 p.m. I might order something from the market and walk outside and get food rather than taking a hike to the student union.”

Peter Testory, director of dining and culinary services at UW, also cited the robots’ convenience for students. But another draw for the University was the desire to be at the forefront of technology use.

“Utilizing a trendsetting technology and bringing programs like that to our campus is a desire as a higher ed institution,” Testory said. “Students are coming to us having food delivery [as a regular thing in their lives] through Grubhub, EatStreet, DoorDash—those types of things.”

Starship, a company that makes food delivery robots, was founded by Skype co-founders Janus Friis and Ahti Heinla. The robots deliver food on college campuses across the U.S. and can move at up to 3.7 mph and “speak” to the humans they’re delivering to. By Zoe Neely for Midstory.

As a trendsetting technology, the delivery robots also have a certain “cool factor” that’s attracting vendors.

“I just honestly thought it would look cool. I thought it was possibly the wave of the future,” Jeremy Seaver, general manager at Tio’s Mexican Cafe and Tequila Bar in Ann Arbor, said. 

Tio’s has been using REV-1 robots since right before the pandemic hit, when Seaver saw an article in a local paper about Refraction AI and contacted the company. Unlike Starship, REV-1 robots can operate in car and bike lanes, and at 150 pounds, they’re much larger than Starship’s approximately 40-pound bots.

Beyond food delivery robots’ aesthetic and technological appeal, they’re sustainable. Starship and REV-1 robots are electrically powered, so they don’t emit carbon dioxide like gas-powered vehicles do. Testory said that using delivery robots eliminates the need to have extra cars on campus for delivery. 

But the delivery robots do have some drawbacks. Keeton said that Starship robots can occasionally get in the way on crowded or snowy sidewalks. Furthermore, while the state of Michigan has passed laws to allow restaurants and bars to deliver alcohol, Refraction AI hasn’t yet been able to secure a permit for alcohol delivery. This means that restaurants like Tio’s, which serve drinks, must use their own delivery personnel or other services for orders that include alcohol. And the robots sometimes impact pedestrian accessibility, especially for people with physical disabilities.

In 2019, Emily Ackerman, a chemical engineering PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh, complained via Twitter that a Starship robot—then in a testing phase at the school—blocked a curb cut while she was crossing a road in her wheelchair, leaving her trapped on the street. Pitt paused testing after Ackerman complained but fully implemented the robots on campus several months later. If Starship has modified their bots’ software since Ackerman’s complaints, they haven’t made the info publicly available, although they do have a website page on accessibility.

In a talk with Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, Ackerman suggested that designers spend more time in testing phases before releasing technology so that they can fix products before they interact with the public rather than after. She also encouraged the tech industry to diversify and include disabled people in every level of the design process, from soliciting user feedback to simply thinking about how products will affect people with varying needs. 

Food delivery robots and the labor shortage

According to Richard Freeman, a labor economist and professor at Harvard University, engineering food delivery robots is actually surprisingly difficult. These robots have to make a number of decisions, like avoiding a mound of snow or pulling over to avoid an accident on the road, which Freeman said tends to be difficult for automated machines.

Repetitive work is the most automatable, or doable by a robot, Freeman said. That’s why less educated workers, who are more likely to work in factories, are more susceptible to getting pushed out of their jobs by AI. White-collar work, though, is also subject to automation. Freeman suggested that a nurse filling out forms, for example, could be easily automated. 

Refraction AI operates REV-1 robots, which deliver food for restaurants. The robots are approximately four and a half feet in height and length and two and a half feet in width. They can operate in car and bike lanes and travel at up to 15 mph. By Zoe Neely for Midstory.

In 2019, Freeman contributed to a study for the Century Foundation that found that from 2009 to 2017, the number of industrial robots was highest in the Midwest, particularly in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. That’s because the Midwest is a hub for manufacturing, where robots tend to thrive. Freeman’s study found that while in many places and among many groups the robots had no impact on workers’ pay or access to jobs, the growing number of robots resulted in the most job displacement and wage reduction in the Midwest among less educated people, especially Black people. 

The fear that robots will take our jobs may have been galvanized by increasing technology use and movies’ depictions of robot takeovers. But that fear is actually largely misplaced on a larger scale, which Freeman confirms in his study. Manufacturing jobs are most likely to be replaced by AI, and even within the industry, the impact is still low. 

Unlike in manufacturing, robots aren’t displacing workers in the food service industry. Many food establishments have actually had difficulty finding workers throughout the last decade. Testory cited this as a main reason that UW decided to use food delivery robots. In an email, he clarified that the decline in both student and full-time job applicants at UW was evidence of an industry-wide issue. 

“We, even prior to the pandemic, have been experiencing labor shortages for quite some time,” Testory said in an interview. “Housing-dining did operate their own delivery service many years ago, and it was very successful. So we knew that there was a want and a need on campus. And we knew that there would be no way we would be able to hire the amount of personnel we needed to facilitate the number of deliveries we thought we’d do a day.”

According to 2015-2019 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the accommodation and food services industry consistently had the highest annual quit rates of any industry, ranging from 49.8 percent in 2015 to 58.3 percent in 2019. Their turnover rates, including layoffs and discharges in addition to quits, were the second highest of all industries in the five-year period, behind only the arts, entertainment and recreation industry. In 2019, over three-quarters of accommodation and food services workers left their jobs.

A May 2021 study from One Fair Wage and the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center titled “It’s a Wage Shortage, Not a Worker Shortage” suggested a reframing of the many unfilled jobs in the restaurant industry. It’s not that there aren’t enough workers to fill jobs, the study argued. Rather, the pay is not high enough to draw workers in. The BLS estimates that in 2019, about 60 percent of all workers paid at or below the federal minimum wage were employed in the leisure and hospitality industry, almost all of whom were restaurant and food service workers. 

The study determined that the most common reason food service workers left or considered leaving their jobs was low wages and tips. Of the 2,800 workers surveyed, 78 percent said that a full, stable, livable wage would persuade them to keep their jobs. But restaurants and food delivery hubs aren’t raising wages. 

The majority of states do not require that tipped workers are paid minimum wage, and the federal subminimum wage—or the acceptable wage for tipped workers, a legacy of slavery—is only $2.13 an hour. Meanwhile, average unemployment benefits exceed minimum wage in every state in the U.S., and the $300 weekly federal bonus that unemployed workers were able to receive during the pandemic on top of state unemployment pay meant that for many,  not working at all was a better option than working in underpaid food service jobs. 

Smaller restaurants might not generate enough revenue at the moment to pay their workers higher wages. Brian Kung is the manager and co-owner of Wolverine Sushi Bar in Ann Arbor, which uses REV-1 robots for deliveries. He said that the restaurant has tried to create incentives for workers to stay with them. 

“We’ve been focused more on creating a good work environment for people rather than finding financial incentives,” Kung said. “For a small company like us, that’s not something that we are able to tap into. None of us really have deep pockets, so we have to rely on just making sure our staff morale is good.” 

The study from One Fair Wage and UC Berkeley concludes by pointing out that independent restaurant employers cannot raise their wages alone. The authors argue that we also need federal policy that will level the playing field, specifically raising the federal minimum wage from its current $7.25 to $15. And paying workers more doesn’t have to put financial strain on restaurants. Instead, it might mean upping menu prices.

Refraction AI has been operating in Ann Arbor, MI since 2019, and at the end of June, the company launched a pilot program in Austin, TX, where the robots are delivering pizza. For now, a human attendant follows the robots via scooter, but once the robots learn to better navigate Austin streets, they’ll deliver on their own. By Zoe Neely for Midstory.

Beyond low wages, the rise of the gig economy, based on flexible, temporary jobs, may have further motivated workers to leave food service. The number of gig workers is difficult to measure; reports of the percentage of American workers who do gig work ranges from about 10 to 35 percent, and some of those reports estimate that the number of gig workers hasn’t changed much in years. 

It’s hard to say how many of those workers are doing delivery work, and there hasn’t been much research conducted on whether there’s a direct channel from food industry work to flexible delivery jobs. But Seaver believes that at Tio’s, the gig economy sucked a lot of delivery employees out of the restaurant hiring pool. 

“Why are you doing direct delivery for me, where you also have to do things like wash dishes and prep, when you could work for UberEats or DoorDash?” Seaver said. “Those jobs, all you have to do is take deliveries. You can also set your schedule much more easily.” 

But when Seaver tried using outside delivery services at Tio’s, he had a bad experience. Giving food to people he wasn’t directly employing lessened the control the restaurant had over its food. REV-1 doesn’t technically provide Tio’s with a better idea of where their food is going than another food delivery service would, but Seaver has found that generally, the robots are more reliable. And they’re much cheaper than other delivery services, which had high commission prices and were thus cost prohibitive for Tio’s. 

Delivery robots may not be helping food establishments solve the industry-wide issues that drove many away from food service in the first place. But for the moment, they’re providing restaurants and colleges with an individual solution to labor shortages, and they arrived just in time for the pandemic and the resulting skyrocketing delivery demand. Even taking labor shortages—a large factor in some businesses’ decisions to use robots—out of the picture, Starship and Refraction AI give us a glimpse into what the future of delivery could be: convenient and energy-efficient, and hopefully also more convenient for people of all abilities. 

Seaver hates to think that anything good came out of the pandemic, but for him, the robots were a positive. They were the perfect solution to soaring delivery demands.

“For a small business like me to get that kind of technology, that was tremendous,” Seaver said.


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