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If teens won't work grill, robots will

George Jetson would feel at home.

Today, there's enough restaurant equipment on the market or awaiting patent to take a customer's order and payment and cook and package the food - all with little or no human labor.

No one's predicting that robot maid Rosie will be grilling burgers outside of Orbit City any time soon, but as the nation's restaurant industry scrambles to cope with an ongoing labor crunch, many players are looking to automation to fill the bill.

"You're just seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of integrating automation into the restaurant operations," said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association.

"Restaurant operators will purchase technology with more zest because the traditional labor pool growth is not there."

For years, restaurateurs have seen the crop of willing workers - traditionally teens and early 20-somethings - shrink. That's due both to shifting birth rates and competition from other employers.

The restaurant industry will need 1.8-million additional workers by 2015, Riehle predicts. Along with the labor crunch, the desire for speed and consistency create the perfect recipe for more gadgetry.

At 3,200 of the nearly 14,000 U.S. McDonald's restaurants, drive-through workers needn't scurry to get drink orders. The chain's automated beverage system - linked to the cash register - drops the cup, fills it with ice and soda and conveys it to the worker, ready for lid and delivery.

In a similar vein, Wendy's International Inc. a year ago began rolling out grills that cook a burger on both sides simultaneously, eliminating the need for burger flipping.

The grills, in 2,400 of the chain's U.S. restaurants, reduce the previous cooking time of 5.5 minutes to about one minute, said spokesman Bob Bertini.

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