April 4, 2022
BEIJING – A restaurant owner surnamed Hao has posted job adverts for chefs online in recent months but she is still unable to fill the vacancies despite offering a monthly salary of 10,000 yuan ($1,575). The situation is common in Harbin－where Hao’s business is located－a city in Northeast China’s Heilongjiang province.
According to jobs website zhaopin.com, the number of open positions for chefs in Harbin increases every day. In one month after the Spring Festival holiday in February, local hospitality and food industries offered the third-most jobs among all sectors, a year-on-year increase of 33.3 percent.
The website said the average monthly salary of a chef in Harbin is 4,500 yuan and a high-skilled one can earn more than 10,000 yuan. Despite that, employers cannot find the right workers. “Many chefs graduate from local schools each year, but normally very few of them choose to stay in Harbin,” said Zhou Li, president of the Harbin Culinary Association.
To deal with such a worker shortage, restaurants have turned to catering robots, which got many online likes during the recently concluded Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games.
A hotpot restaurant owner in Harbin told Zaker, a news website, that he bought three robots. While each one costs 20,000 to 30,000 yuan, they are versatile. “It can deliver tableware and dishes, communicate with customers and attract young people’s attention,” he said, adding that a robot can work around the clock with no tantrums, and never requires a salary increase or a break. Each one can fill the roles of three workers, he said.
At a canteen in the Harbin Institute of Technology, there is a robotic noodle maker. It works as fast as three to five human chefs.
Harbin-based school food manufacturers and suppliers have used automated equipment in their production for quite some time. One company, in an interview with Zaker, said most tasks are done by machines following a certain program. Cooking times are calculated to make dishes taste the same.
“Large-scale catering chain enterprises are now adopting such standardized and streamlined operations, so that their products ranging from steamed stuffed buns, stewed food to malatang, a spicy Sichuan broth with meat and vegetables, can keep up with demand online.
“This standardized operation ensures consistent product quality. And more importantly, it relieves the worker shortage facing the catering industry and reduces the cost of employment,” Zhou said.
According to corporate information provider Tianyancha, there are 12,762 companies in China specializing in developing, producing or distributing catering robots. Of them, 60 are in Harbin.
Industry insiders said catering robots are still in their early stage and related technologies are not mature enough. But with the development of science and technology, the future is bound to be intelligent. The integration of the catering industry and artificial intelligence is inevitable, they added.
“However, catering robots can’t offer more personal services. Each customer comes with his or her own preferences. Some don’t want salt, and some want no onion or garlic,” Zhou said.
“Despite catering enterprises working hard on standardization over the next few years, highly skilled chefs are still the foundation for all catering enterprises’ success and will always be scarce. Catering is a service industry that puts great effort into human resources. As a result, the most fundamental thing is talent.
“Chefs not only play a vital role in the research and development of dishes, but are the most important people to carry out a company’s differentiation strategy to increase its competitive advantage. Even if the degree of mechanization becomes higher in the future, the smooth cooking performance of robots can’t be achieved without further R&D undertaken by professional chefs behind the scenes.”