It may not be long before robots make up the majority of fast food restaurant staffs. And while that may mean faster and more consistent service for customers, it could also put many workers out of a job.
Rising minimum wages across the country and new advances in technology are pushing many fast food companies to look to automation. Wendy's announced in February it would install self-service kiosks in more than 1,000 locations nationwide to cut labor costs. McDonald's also announced in June it will install digital ordering kiosks in more than 2,500 of its stores.
Behind the counter, new technologies also are being developed to reduce the need for humans. A number of manufacturers are producing kitchen robots that can grill hamburgers and do the work of cooks.
Greg Creed, CEO of Yum Brands, the parent company of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut, told CNBC in March that machines could replace some human workers within a decade.
"I don't think it is going to happen next year or the year after, but I do believe that probably by the mid '20s to the late '20s, you'll start to see a dramatic change in sort of how machines run the world," Creed said.
One such robot coming on the market is called Flippy. It's a small cart on wheels that features an arm with six axes and can move in a wide array of motions to perform multiple functions. Detatchable tools and artificial intelligence programming enable it to make hamburgers, fry chicken and even cut vegetables.
CaliBurger has committed to rolling out Flippy robots in at least 50 of its restaurants in the next two years. John Miller, chairman of Cali Group, said that while the machines will work with its employees to make food "faster, safer and with fewer errors," their investment in robotics also is part of a broader vision for "creating a unified operating system."
Miller said the company would retrain certain staff to operate Flippy and that it would also redeploy more staff to the dining rooms to engage with customers.
Equipment manufacturers and fast food operators say with the falling prices of automation, they could quickly recoup their investments on labor savings. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there are nearly 2.3 million people working as cooks in the U.S. earning an average of $10.99 per hour.
David Trimm, Wendy's Chief Information Officer, said in a recent conference call with investors that the cost of kiosks would be recouped in less than two years, and that some customers even prefer kiosks over humans.
"You will see customers deliberately going to those kiosks directly, bypassing lines … Some customers clearly prefer to use the kiosks," Trimm said.