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My Compliments to the (Robot) Chef: How Automation Is Helping the Food Service Industry

A colorful illustration shows a robotic arm flipping burger buns on a griddle

What links winter sports athletes in China, pizza fans in France, burger lovers in California, and coffee drinkers in Singapore?

Answer: They’ve all enjoyed food that has been prepared by and maybe even served by kitchen robots.

It sounds fun, but restaurant automation is no gimmick. Restaurants offer not just convenience, but also a highly personalized cultural and culinary experience. They also create countless jobs, directly and indirectly. But in recent years, the food service industry has faced a growing number of challenges, including labor shortages, rising customer demand and expectations, and of course the pandemic.

Strict Covid-19 measures designed to keep winter sports athletes safe in China, for example, meant this year’s event organizers needed to reduce human contact to a minimum, so they deployed a range of food service solutions that came with the added bonus of making great headlines.

The idea of using automation in food service wasn’t developed to serve snowboarders and figure skaters, but the event marked the first major use of solutions that have been in development for some time.

Robots in the kitchen

Kitchen work is often dangerous, tedious, and unpleasant, with kitchen staff facing flames and high-temperature oils in a highly stressful environment; automation could be used for a number of these “back of house” (kitchen) tasks, freeing up staff to work in value-add creative and “front of house” (waiting and table service) roles, improving safety, and speeding up service.

Add to this the fact that, even before the pandemic, the industry was struggling to meet customer demand, and anticipated an increase in the use of automation in some kitchen and food service tasks. According to the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association, by 2030, “automation and robotics will begin to play a greater role in food preparation and the kitchen line…This will allow automation of more of the repetitive elements of food preparation and even permit motion-capture replication of the movements of chefs. Chefs will work in collaboration with these systems, using their physical senses and expert judgment.”

These were among the findings of a report published in 2019; many of the issues which were already challenging the restaurant industry have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Keeping customers happy is one of the most significant challenges facing the restaurant industry. According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2022 State of the Restaurant Industry Report, “Seven in 10 operators across all major segments say their restaurant currently does not have enough employees to support customer demand and most operators expect their labor challenges to continue through next year.”

Lightspeed, a restaurant software company, surveyed over 2,000 restaurant owners, operators, managers and guests across North America and Europe for its “2021 Global State of Hospitality Report.” One of the key findings was that, as restaurants seek to overcome the labor shortage and operate with a smaller workforce, “50 percent of hospitality operators in the US and 51 percent in Canada plan to utilize some form of automation technology within the next two to three years.”

Here, we take a look at some of the innovations helping out the sous-chefs, prep and line cooks in the kitchen, and alongside the waiting staff out front among the hungry punters.

Pizza kiosks and drive-thru tacos

If you’re in a rush, but need a taco, you could grab a bite at a Taco Bell Defy outlet. The taco chain’s first touchless four-lane drive-thru restaurant at Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, opened in 2021. Customers place their order online (on-site ordering is also available) and collect their food by scanning a QR code. The food is delivered directly to the vehicle via a specially designed lift system. Crucially, although the food delivery is automated, the outlet employs staff in the kitchens, preparing the food.

Taco Bell is no stranger to automation. In the 1990s, the company experimented with an automated taco maker capable of making 900 tacos per hour. In the end, the company abandoned the project, but the initiative was certainly prescient and probably wouldn’t raise an eyebrow if it were announced today.

“Come for the show, stay for the pizza” is the Pazzi pizza-house slogan. This direct nod to the spectacle of a robot making a pizza acknowledges not only the novelty of visiting a “Pazzeria,” but also the considerable behind-the-scenes work that enables the company to display its pizza-making robot front and center in a theater-like pizza kitchen. Pazzi opened its first robot-only kitchen in the center of Paris in mid-2021, serving customers a unique pizza menu curated by three-time World Pizza Champion, Thierry Graffagnino. The company has plans for four restaurants by mid-2022—three in Paris and one in Switzerland.

Pazzi isn’t the only player in the automated pizza game; PizzaForno—which started life as a pizza-making kiosk in France and spread to North America following a distribution deal—can produce a 12-inch thin-crust pizza ready to eat in three minutes.

Also in the pizza vending-machine business is 800 Go, a joint venture between 800 Degrees Woodfired Kitchen and vending machine manufacturer Piestro. Like PizzaForno, the machine works 24/7, with customers ordering a pizza on a touchscreen, and biting into it three minutes later.

Flippy and friends – the robots stacking your burgers

A Flippy 2 robotic fry-cooking arm is shown grasping a basket in a commercial kitchen
The Flippy 2 robot at work cooking french fries. Credit: Miso Robotics

If you’ve placed an order at White Castle recently, your food may have been prepared by Flippy, a one-armed burger-making robot. Developed by Pasadena, California-headquartered Miso Robotics, the robotic arm—powered by cloud-based artificial intelligence (AI)—is suspended on an overhead frame to free up valuable space below for food preparation.

Meanwhile, Flippy 2 has been designed to take on the repetitive, monotonous, and dangerous fry station work of dipping chicken wings in boiling hot deep fat fryers. As a result of what the restaurant chain calls “an immediate positive impact” on operations and productivity, it has committed to installing Flippy 2 at a further 100 of its 350 outlets.

In an interesting take on the future of the restaurant industry, the Bay Area’s Creator pitches itself as a tech company, rather than a fast-food outlet. Creator lays claim to being “the first restaurant to automate the preparation of a major food category from start to finish.” Creator’s restaurant in Daly City, California is equipped with the latest version of its burger-making robot, serving a menu that includes pasture-raised beef, and local and organic vegetables.

Robotic mixologists and barista bots

As well as food automation, roboticists are looking at how they can help in the bar area, with solutions appearing in high footfall public spaces such as subway stations and sports arenas, as well as hotels and at private parties, serving soft drinks and beers, brewing coffee, and mixing cocktails and mocktails.

Since 2014, the Swiss company F&P Robotics has been developing the code and the mechanics behind a robotic cocktail bartender. The result? Barney Bar, capable of mixing cocktails and mocktails, serving shots, and pouring beer and prosecco.

Barney can also serve the perfect coffee. So, too, can robotic coffee bar Café X, which you can find in San Francisco’s SFO airport, and Ella, Singapore’s first robot barista, which its creator plans to install in stations throughout the city’s subway network.

As well as creating a robot mixologist that can serve 120 cocktails an hour, the makers of Cecilia focused heavily on the personalized experience. Cecilia is equipped with voice recognition and interactive conversational AI, enabling customisation for corporate and private events. “I’m chattier than most robots you’ll meet,” claims Cecilia on the company’s website, “and I’m goddamn hilarious.”

Your waiter for the evening: Robotic table service

Front of house, you could be served by a wheeled robo-waiter delivering your order on tiered shelving. Servi, by Bear Robotics, can take food and drinks to tables, or be used to take empty plates back to the kitchen. Navigating the busy restaurant floor with lidar and cameras, Servi carries out its orders and then returns to base, working alone, or alongside other Servi units.

Other similar front-of-house offerings include Matradee, made by Richtech Robotics. and American Robotec’s range of four different robots for drink and dish delivery and collection, and for interacting with customers.

While these lidar and camera-equipped front-of-house robots offer considerable benefits to waiting staff when it comes to restaurant table service, they’re a clear example of robots and humans working alongside each other; there’s a long way to go before robots can do basic tasks such as clearing away the dirty dishes, wiping the table down, or recommending the best local beach.

Where next?

According to Joseph Schumaker, president of consultancy FoodSpace and chair of Foodservice Consultants Society International (FCSI) Technology Committee, robotics will be used to carry out mundane, dangerous, and repetitive tasks. In an article on the FCSI website, Schumaker is quoted as saying, “Not just Flippy the robot, but actual workhorse robots to help with back of house flow by chopping tomatoes, removing a pan from the oven or assembling a sandwich or a salad. These technologies have existed since the 1950s but the tipping point in food service will be camera technology that can see and translate a task into robotic action.”

Like so many other areas of industry exploring the benefits of deploying automation to increase efficiency, and reduce the workload for human staff, the food service industry could be an ideal candidate. In an industry that relies heavily on human interaction and the personal touch, the value of automation lies not in replacing human labor in food service, but in supporting people doing highly stressful and often dangerous work, and ultimately, helping restaurants keep up with rising demand.

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