In our recent article, “Restaurant Robotics Are Here to Stay,” we talked about the dawn of the robot age and whether robots entering the food industry meant that people (waiters, chefs, bartenders) were on their way out. We concluded that only time would tell but urged restaurant owners to continue to follow automation trends while acknowledging that the human element was unlikely to be eliminated altogether.
Given the ongoing proliferation of featured news items concerning restaurants and robots, and given the new cutting-edge automated technologies continuing to emerge and astound, we continue to explore the topic here and look at what’s up in the realm of foodservice robotics.
Robot Restaurant Trajectory
First, Steve Davis, Ph.D. a lecturer in manufacturing automation and robotics at the University of Salford, UK, reminds us of the trajectory the automated kitchen has passed. In his own words:
“Initially, automation in the food industry concentrated on end-of-line work (think computerized mechanical baggers). And robots excelled at it, but there was a demand for faster and more agile machines able to work further up the production line and provide rapid pick-and-place operations on individual food products. This challenge was met by the introduction of the Delta family of robots now available from a range of manufacturers. These robots are optimized for fast operation (100–120 picks per minute) with lightweight payloads (1–2 kg) and have been particularly successful in processing food products.”
Commercial Kitchen Robots Making Headlines
Fast-forward, and in only a short period of time, the technology which was once relegated to performing low-skill and repeatable tasks commonly found in fast food establishments has given rise to an explosion in commercial kitchen automation and to some of the following groundbreaking technologies making headlines today. If you have been following foodservice trends, you may recognize some of the now-famous robots capturing the attention and awe of the business world, food industry, media, and public:
- In Mountain View, California, Zume pizza-making robots roll dough, add toppings, bake, and remove from oven
- Burger-flipping Flippy from California’s Caliburger fast food chain is a crowd favorite
- Starship Technologies’ food delivery robots use internal cameras and GPS systems to read street signs, traffic lights, and deliver food directly from restaurants to customers’ houses in Washington DC
- Sidewalk delivery robots from the company Marble, capable of navigating urban traffic and city crowds, deliver door-to-door
- The self-pouring cocktail machine known as Smartender connects directly to a bar’s POS system and is capable of serving 600 drink varieties at the command of a touch screen
- Adding a human element, Tipsy, a robot featuring human-looking arms, acts as a bartender pouring drinks
Robotic Kitchen Spyce
But it is Boston-based robotic kitchen Spyce, co-founded by four MIT students, that is considered by many to be the forerunner of the trends and the leader of the pack when it comes to robots that cook, prepare, and serve complex meals upon demand. Forbes magazine continues to highlight and herald their journey, stating: “The latest robot restaurants popping up around the planet are a sign of an automated future to come.” Be sure to check out their plethora of published articles such as:
- Rise of the Robochef: How 4 Young Entrepreneurs Built a 25-m Futuristic Restaurant Startup
- The Top 5 Food Trends to Watch in 2019
- The Robot Restaurant Revolution
- The Rise of the Restaurant Robot
Are Restaurant Robots in and Employees Really Out?
So, are robots in and people out in the foodservice industry? According to Spyce co-founder Michael Farid, this was never the intention of the company to begin with: “The idea of the robotics was definitely to make it more efficient, but not to remove the people entirely. People still prep the food, deliver it, and stock the robotic kitchen…. so there are still plenty of people required and still plenty of people who are absolutely critical and important to the process.”
Farid goes on to say: “People come in and they’re initially thrilled by seeing the robotics, but pretty quickly after they take a seat and get to eating, they’re back to their typical behavior in a fast-casual restaurant…The experience with interacting with a robot is a pretty short, fun experience. But it really doesn’t dominate the experience.”
Restaurant Automation: A Breach of Tradition or a Cost-Saving Revolution?
The debate over the pros of cons of foodservice robotics continues. Naysayers reject the notion outright as an affront to human hospitality and to the honor of longstanding restaurant service successes and traditions. Advocates, on the other hand, view the phenomenon as a positive step forward, providing a practical solution to modern labor costs and a welcome means of increasing profitability.
Additional restaurant robot benefits include:
- Robots reduce menu prices by their super-efficient systems, with one robot doing the work of several non-robotic employees
- Robots eliminate human error and inconsistent food quality
- Robots ensure accurate portion control and reduce food wastage
- Robots do not call in sick or require vacation time/pay
- Robots are still an exciting and novel addition that put can food establishments on the map and attract customers as well as media attention
- Automation is getting significantly cheaper. Experts from the Center for an Urban Future report the cost of robotics falling to the savory tune of over 50% since its’ inception and the potential that the workforce of waiters and waitresses can be automated as well has risen to whopping 87%!
The Latest in Commercial Kitchen Automation
Of course, robotics are only one part of the picture in foodservice automation. With new industry software and ‘smart’ kitchen appliances and equipment on the rise, here are some of the latest innovations your food or beverage establishment may want to invest in:
- Food Safety Management Apps: Helping your business remain compliant with food safety regulations and paperwork are apps and appliances which automatically keep track of key Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) safety indicators. These include wireless temperature probes for your oven, fridge, and freezer; pre-loaded digital compliance checklists; and online reporting capabilities that make meticulous record-keeping easy
- Remote-controlled software and appliances, allowing you to track and order inventory from wherever you are, set or pre-set cooking times, update menus in real time, keep tabs on employees, and more
- ‘Smart’ cutting-edge commercial ovens such as the new Cook and Hold Oven (aka the set-it and forget-it oven), which automatically lowers its own temperature to a holding position after cooking is complete
- Radiant Heating Technology, which reduces stovetop and oven electricity use and energy costs by creating an even heat
- Three-in-One combination or multi-purpose industrial ovens, which can be remotely monitored and controlled. Benefits include: saving money since one oven suffices for all your cooking/baking needs; take up less counter-top or kitchen space than two or more single-purpose ovens; keep track of HACCP food safety requirements; keep your customers safe from health risks and protect you from liability
- Reduced Labor Costs: Remote control of your equipment and appliances means you can have fewer employees present in your kitchen at certain times
Although state-of-the-art automated restaurant technologies requires an investment at the outset, they quickly pay for themselves with the value (and ROI) added to your restaurant. So, figure out if you have any niches that need to be filled and if adding kitchen robots to your operations will fit the bill. But, regardless of whether or not robotics are on your business’ shopping list, following current restaurant robot trends is a fascinating journey all its own…