Restaurant Cashier Zooms In to Work, Press Freaks Out. Better Get Ready for Lots More Change at Checkout

This week, a raft of news stories about an encounter with a cashier manning the checkout remotely from a distant location went viral.

Dozens of shock-take articles proliferated after a Google employee named Brett Goldstein stumbled upon the remote cashier in a New York City restaurant called Sansan Chicken and proceeded to breathlessly tweet about it. From there, everyone from Eater to the New York Post covered the story. According to a publication called 404 Media, the company providing the virtual labor is called Happy Cashier.

The dystopian framing is a bit surprising, especially since this type of technology is a smart way to deploy actual human workers in places where they are needed. The decoupling of the requirement for a physical presence to do work for jobs that don’t require physical labor has been underway for years, something many users experienced during the pandemic. This technology coming to the front line of the quick service and convenience formats makes perfect sense.

Add to that the reality that remote cashiers have been zooming into work for at least the last couple of years, as companies like Bite Ninja have been building out both a platform and training a workforce of remote workers to work the register. Originally targeting drive-thrus, Bite Ninja expanded to inside the restaurant over the past couple of years, and last year, they said they had certified over 10,000 remote workers to use the technology.

My guess is that part of the reason the interaction got so much traction is because the remote cashier was zooming in from the Philippines. While it could have just as easily been a mom working from home in Louisiana or an off-duty trucker side-hustling from Minnesota, the fact that it was someone working outside of the US, doing the job of someone who normally would need to be there in person, made the many in the press jump at the story for various reasons.

Here’s the thing, though: the cashier is the easiest employee to replace with technology in the restaurant, something which has been apparent for years as apps, in-store kiosks, and, more recently, AI-powered bots start to take our orders. That it’s a worker from a different country should not be surprising, as we’ve seen jobs like phone customer service largely move overseas over the past decade. At least these platforms, like Bite Ninja, provide an opportunity for human workers because the much bigger story over the next decade will be that a significant portion (if not a majority) of the customer-service front-line jobs will be lost to AI. You need to look no further than that one of the US’s biggest fast food operators has developed (and given a name to) its own generative AI-powered customer service agent.

And voice AI agents are only the beginning. As we saw at CES a couple of years ago, virtual avatars are already stepping onto the front lines of customer service, and some of them even have names. Meet Cecelia the avatar bartender everyone.

The bottom line is that it’s always interesting and instructive to watch how these technologies are perceived in the field by customers. Solutions like digital kiosks are accepted as a convenient and time-saving way to order food, while remote workers being piped in virtually initially may induce shock and wonder, even though it’s probably the least technically challenging of all the solutions emerging.

Customer reactions are important because they will be evaluated by chains that are evaluating new technologies for deployment. While a smaller regional player like Sansan Chicken may be comfortable as early adopters of a remote cashier at the main checkout counter, don’t expect bigger chains to deploy these widely until they feel their customers will be okay with the change.

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