For those of us old enough to remember the robot from the TV show Lost in Space (or young enough to still enjoy it now on syndication), wildly waving its arms to communicate, here’s a news flash: the world of robots has changed. Robots in the food industry have less to do with R2-D2 or Woody Allen’s Sleeper, than with, speed, automation, efficiency, and customer service. A robot in this context is any electronic tool that can perform repetitive operations. So, before you scoff and declare that robots serving food will never happen, look around. The future is now.
The Dawn of the Robot Age
The transition to robots in the food-service industry began at the very end of the 19th century when the first Automat opened: a restaurant where you could put a coin in a shiny futuristic machine and a meal was dispensed from a contraption that looked like something out of science fiction. True, there was a cook who prepared the food behind the scenes, but it most definitely seemed like a work of wondrous automation at the time. Fast-forward to about 20 years ago when quick-service workers first handed an empty cup to customers and told them to fill it on their own at the soda fountain. Restaurant operators saw this as a way to “outsource” labor to the customer, and that soda machine was a robot of sorts.
Today, food service automation is reaching new heights. If you’ve been to a McDonald’s at an airport recently, you’ve probably noticed the kiosks that allow you to order your food using a touch screen display and pick it up when it’s ready. Even more amazing, McDonald’s opened a test version of a fully automated restaurant in 2015 that featured robots that work 50 times faster than the average human. As the manager of the store says, “These things are great! They get their work done in a fast and orderly manner, plus they don’t ask for cigarette breaks.”
Or, as The Atlantic writes, “Robots Will Transform Fast Food,” and that might not be a bad thing.
Labor is a Challenge
Labor in many operations is a big obstacle to success; good labor is hard to find, maintain, and manage. Finding lower-skilled restaurant workers willing to work long hours on their feet for low pay has produced marginal service for customers as well as training and turnover headaches for managers and owners. Turnover is always a headache, absenteeism is a plague, and the culture of customer service seems to be fading fast. The main advantage of robotics and automation is that they create a more efficient working environment. Restaurants are a particularly inefficient business compared to, say, companies in the high-tech industry. Margins are low, your product has a short life-span time, and, on the labor side, there is a wide range of personnel requirements.
The idea of incorporating robots to cook, clean, serve and approve credit card transactions might be the greatest gift restaurant owners and managers can get. The constant need for hiring, training, scheduling and disciplining disappears. Overworked and testy cashiers replaced by electronic helpers can lower consumers’ expectations of courteous service and shorten waiting times. In other words, there are two main reasons food service operations are looking to automate. One is to cut labor costs by not having to pay human employees; and another is to increase efficiency, quality, sanitation, uniformity, etc.
Amazon Leads the Way
So, for instance, when earlier this year Amazon announced the introduction of “Amazon-Go” locations — grocery stores stocked with barcoded goods that don’t require check out – it seemed like the robot age had most definitely arrived. Similarly, in San Francisco’s Café X, a high-end coffee shop, there are no employees. Patrons approach a kiosk where they enter their drink order; then, a completely automated robot grinds, pours, foams and delivers a hot cup of coffee, after which the customer swipes a credit card to complete the transaction. Each day, one human being visits the location to refill the water, milk, and beans.
This giant step toward robots-in, people-out seems to fly in the face of a 2017 article entitled, “The Impact of Automation and Robotics on the Restaurant Industry,” which says, that, “While the implementation of automation seems inevitable, many still believe that implementation will be slow and that the human factor will never be fully removed from the dining experience.” The article goes on to say, however, that, “While both of these ideas are most likely true, there is no doubt that automation and robotics will have a big impact on the restaurant industry in the not so distant future.”
San-Francisco-based Sally Salads is a robot that assembles and serves salads. A Bloomberg article, entitled, “Meet Sally, the Robot Who Makes Perfect Salads,” explains that Sally is more like a salad vending machine — press a few buttons on a touchscreen and it drops neat portions of refrigerated ingredients into a bowl. Sally is the first product from Chowbotics, a Silicon Valley startup that develops robots for the food-service industry and claims that its device “can make a salad faster and more precisely suited to your caloric desires than a human can.”
Elsewhere, a variety of new food-service businesses and restaurants are using automation as their business model. Eatsa, for example, is an expanding restaurant chain where customers order on their phone or an iPad and quickly receive a meal in a cubby with their name on it, all without having to interact with anyone. It’s a super-modern version of the Automat and, like with that original version, there are people behind the scene. However, according to Eatsa’s website, the company’s technology platform “empowers restaurants to deliver a magical customer experience, while serving more customers, faster and more efficiently.”
Shake Shack also plans to open a cashless, kiosk-only location where guests will use digital kiosks or their mobile phones to place orders. These operations will be manned by humans – called “hospitality champs” – who are there to make customers’ time in the restaurant as seamless and enjoyable as possible. In 2016, the annual National Restaurant Association Show featured three robot chefs, one of which is a sushi chef that makes maki, hand rolls and nigiri at a rate of 3,600 pieces an hour, while another is a robot that can work a fryer and cook a batch of French fries as quickly as a human employee.
Don’t Give Up on People Altogether
The most likely outcome of the robotic transition will probably be a machine-human interdependency. Operators will likely use a combination of people and electronics where people can do the things that robots cannot. Kiosks at McDonalds and touch screen ordering at other outlets are meant to enhance the experience of the customer by speeding up the ordering process and making them feel like they’re in the future. These places still want to have people making food and watching over the kiosks. Nonetheless, there will be fewer people to hire and manage, and – hopefully – they will be paid better because they do more-skilled work. The overall impact on the food industry could be significant, as millions of fast-food jobs will be eliminated.
Momentum Machines Changes the Burger Business
In an article in Wired called, “Rise of the Machines: The Future has Lots of Robots, Few Jobs for Humans,” Momentum Machines – a robotics company in San Francisco is featured. They say that while an average fast food restaurant spends $135,000 every year on labor for the production of hamburgers, the robots they are producing can do it quicker, cheaper, and better. Momentum Machines (now called Creator) can produce a burger in 10 seconds – that’s 360 burgers per hour. Their machine eliminates many fast-food restaurants’ costs and can lessen expenses by reduced staffing and wait times. Going a step further, the company also says that it can change the way food is prepared with technology that serves gourmet-quality food that is more consistent and sanitary – all at fast-food prices.
When asked about the potential economic effects of their device, Creator founder and CEO Alex Vardakostas says, “The issue of machines and job displacement has been around for centuries and economists generally accept that technology like ours actually causes an increase in employment. The three factors that contribute to this are, a) the company that makes the robots must hire new employees; b) the restaurant that uses our robots can expand their frontiers of production which requires hiring more people; and c) the general public saves money on the reduced cost of our burgers. This saved money can then be spent on the rest of the economy.”
Boston’s Spyce Ups the Automation Game
However, just when we thought that robots wouldn’t usurp the place of humans altogether, the Daily Meal website reports that, “America’s First Restaurant with a Completely Robot-Staffed Kitchen Just Opened in Boston.” Four MIT graduates opened Spyce with a predominantly non-human staff. Customers order their food via touchscreen computer, and then one of seven robotic woks in the kitchen cooks each meal in three minutes or less. The restaurant has only three human employees working at a time.
Michael Farid, one of the founders of Spyce, explains, “Once you place your order, we have a delivery system that collects ingredients from the fridge. The ingredients are portioned into the correct sizes and then delivered to a robotic wok, where they are tumbled at 450 degrees Fahrenheit. The ingredients are cooked and seared. And once the process is complete, the woks tilt downward and put food into a bowl. And then they’re ready to be garnished and served.” Two human beings garnish and deliver the bowls to diners, and one person is on standby to guide guests through the ordering process. While meals are cooked, the customer’s name appears on an electronic display above their wok, showing their order. Once finished, hot water jets rinse the inside of woks before another collection of ingredients is dumped inside. Farid said they decided to place the robotic chefs out in the open to remove any lingering doubts on the part of patrons. “We didn’t want to create a black box that produces a meal,” he said. “We wanted this experience to be exciting.”
The restaurant’s motto: “Culinary excellence elevated by technology.”
Robotics in the Restaurant Industry: Here to Stay
It appears that automation is inevitable in the food service industry as robots start spreading in restaurants across America. No one can be sure what effect robots will have on our lives, but it seems that to stay relevant, restaurant owners should start learning about automation trends instead of working against them. Certainly, in the fast-food sector, as robot chefs become cheaper and more efficient, automation will be the future. However, it’s unlikely that humans will be eliminated altogether and that’s important, especially in the restaurant industry where the relationship between staff and customers is so important. While a robot’s “brain” might work faster than a human’s, it’s the human element that makes a restaurant better and more desirable, and that’s one thing that will never change.