Don’t look now, but the long-anticipated artificial intelligence-fueled food industry of tomorrow may be taking root today. In this robotic brave new world, many facets of the dining experience are minimizing the need for human hands. Mobile apps and self-order kiosks are on the rise — Burger King is installing them in its updated Burger King of Tomorrow locations — and meals prepared at least in part by robotics are less of a novelty. Pizza delivery from self-driving pizza delivery cars is already happening on city streets, and Uber Eats could deliver sushi or salads to your door by drone as soon as 2021. Proponents of restaurant automation say the changes will boost increase efficiency, consistency and customer satisfaction. Critics say we’re headed for a soulless, all-digital future. Predictions aside, there will be human costs whenever machines replace manpower. Here are some insights on operations already blending the two.
ON THE LINE AUTOMATION
Boston-based Spyce uses robotic kitchens to prepare sautéed meal bowls.
HOW IT WORKS: Customers use a food ordering kiosk, specifying their menu selections, customizing ingredients and noting dietary restrictions or allergies. Each customer is then assigned to a wok. Robotic arms select ingredients from “hoppers” and sauté them at 450℉ to 500℉. An employee restocks hoppers, adds garnishes, packages the order and labels the customer’s name on the order.
ADVANTAGES: The robotic technology protects humans from potentially dangerously high temperatures, ensures consistent and precise preparations and makes introducing new offerings as easy as reprogramming software. In theory, the system reduces restaurant labor costs, as well as the square footage needed for kitchens, which may keep prices low for consumers (a bowl meal costs $7.50).
HUMANS BEWARE: Only two to five employees staff the restaurant at any given time. But its founders and funders, which include star chefs Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud, say the workers are better able to focus on non-repetitive tasks, such as greeting customers, answering questions, garnishing meals and distributing orders.
21st CENTURY AUTOMATS
Eatsa operates two automated, health-conscious fast-casual restaurants in San Francisco and provides technology – mobile food ordering, kiosk operations and back-of-house automation – to other restaurants.
HOW IT WORKS: Customers order and pay for meals in one of four ways: the eatsa app, a third-party delivery app, website or kiosks inside eatsa locations. Behind the scenes, automated technology and made-to-order cooking create guests’ meals.
A digital status board shows the stage of each customer’s order; once ready, guests receive a cubby number. A double-tap of the cubby’s surface opens to reveal their bowl or salad. Remember New York City automats? Eatsa is similar – only sleeker.
ADVANTAGES: The completely integrated, multi-platform ordering system encourages the use of apps (eatsa’s mobile orders represent 40-45% of total business), reduces labor, increases throughput and speeds up the customer experience. The system also consolidates multiple online food ordering systems into one integrated back-of-house workflow. By tracking both order-level and customer-level data, the tech can better catalogue diners’ preferences.
HUMANS BEWARE: Eatsa says it employs the same number of people as other restaurants, but makes their roles more efficient. There’s typically one “greeter” in the restaurant, with additional staff behind the scenes prepping food. The company says it enables 50% higher peak capacity with less staff stress than a typical quick-service or fast food restaurant.
MECHANICAL SERVERS/FOOD RUNNERS
Bear Robotics, a California-based company, uses artificial intelligence to develop restaurant technology.
HOW IT WORKS: AI-powered robotic servers help restaurant staff deliver orders to tables, acting essentially as food runners. Founder and CEO John Ha tested the concept at his former restaurant, Kang Nam Tofu House in Milpitas, California. What began as simple plywood-and-wire prototypes developed into sleek robots that resemble Disney’s Wall-E character but, with flat surfaces for carrying plates.
ADVANTAGES: Robotic food runners free up restaurant staff to concentrate on more cognitively intense tasks, such as taking orders and answering menu questions. The robot assistants also solved staffing conundrums, filling in during shifts when, for example, three servers wouldn’t individually earn enough in tips, but two servers would feel overwhelmed. Tip averages per check increased by 4% after introducing the robots, perhaps an indication of greater satisfaction with their service.
HUMANS BEWARE: The robots allowed Ha to staff shifts with two servers, a reduction from what once required three to four people. He also hired fewer temporary workers.
Tipsy Robot is a fully automated cocktail bar. Tasks ranging from drink-shaking to citrus-peel-garnishing is completed by robotics and other tech. The company also provides technology to bars aboard Royal Caribbean cruise ships.
HOW IT WORKS: Customers place orders on tablets at the bar or through a mobile app. Robotic arms select the necessary liquid ingredients from more than 100 bottles suspended from the bar’s ceiling. In about 70 seconds, the cocktail is built, shaken or stirred, garnished and pushed toward the customer through a slot in the bar.
ADVANTAGES: Overpours and wasted alcohol are eliminated when the process is robotized. There’s also the novelty factor, with robotic arms and huge digital displays that guests tend to photograph and share on social media.
HUMANS BEWARE: The Tipsy Robot still employs staff to greet guests, check IDs, and ensure that customers aren’t overserved. The company says that Tipsy Robot won’t replace bartenders everywhere; it’s designed as an attraction. After all, a robot doesn’t have a sympathetic ear.