‘That’s So Cool Man’—When Robots Join the Kitchen
Building the Automated Kitchen was a fascinating panel at the Food On Demand Conference, and not just because Flippy, Sippy and other neato robots are taking over unpleasant tasks while allowing human former fry cooks to be redeployed.
Pizza chains using Perfect Company tech are reducing “over-cheesing” and other human errors that can add up to 40 pounds of food waste per day. Wing Zone can use a robot to man—make that “machine”— the fryer and stay open all night when it’s nearly impossible to get a person to work. And chains like Jack in the Box that use Flippy, the robot from Miso Robotics, can cut their employees at the fry station from two to less than one-half.
“We’re radically kind of changing the economic model of operating restaurants,” said David Bloom, chief operating and development officer at Capriotti’s and Wing Zone. “I will say it’s a long-term process. It involves modifying our cooking processes and working with our supply chain so it works better.”
About a half-dozen years ago, when delivery-service partners were just launching, “about half of the restaurant world lived in: this is not going to stay. These companies aren’t going to make money.’ We took the other side of it: We’re going to get in early, we’re going to invest, we’re going to learn how to optimize on these platforms,” Bloom said. “That’s our approach, partner with the right people, get in early and help figure it out.”
Nicholas Upton, technology editor at Food On Demand, asked Bloom how the humans like working alongside robots. “For Wing Zone, it’s hard to find people at night,” but with robots “I can stay open until 2 in the morning or stay open all night,” he said. “The employees were ecstatic. ‘This is so cool, man, I no longer have to stand over that fryer for 12 hours a day.’ That was transformative for them.”
Perfect Company is tackling automation in the kitchen to address two problems, said President Jim Collins. “One was food waste. We knew that the average unit in one of our client’s chains was over-producing food at a rate of roughly 40 pounds a day and throwing all that away. They literally had compacter garbage cans out back that they had to have dumped every night. We started attacking it at the food waste level, but quickly realized that the biggest challenge in these kitchens is employee training, turnover and employee retention.”
In client kitchens, walls would be covered with papers telling people how to do their jobs, “and in a lot of cases the paper on the walls was put there two years ago,” Collins said. His company puts a tablet in front of the employees to tell them what to do. “The employee puts the crust on the scale; the system automatically chooses the correct order based on the interface with a live-order feed, and it tells the employee, start putting cheese on the pizza.
“Ding! When there’s enough cheese, it dings again and you stop,” Colllins said. “If you over-cheese that pizza by 1 or 2 percent, you’re going to run a bill up in that one unit of roughly $25,000 a year. So our whole focus is, how do we make it faster, how do we make it easier, and how do we reduce the waste.”
Mike Bell, CEO of Miso Robotics, said Flippy installs “over a pre-existing fry station overnight. The next morning, it cooks the food with greater accuracy, significantly higher throughput. We provide Flippy on a subscription” so the customer doesn’t have to worry about the machines. “It takes the fry station from two people to less than one-half, so it fundamentally transforms” the labor model. In these days of worker shortages, he adds, those extra employees don’t get sent home; rather, they’re deployed to other areas of the restaurant.
Vipin Jain, co-founder and CEO of Blendid, is a sci-fi geek. “I am a self-proclaimed Trekkie,” he said with a laugh. “So in 2015, I got together with my co-founders to build a replicator” and the rest is history.
Launched commercially in 2019, Blendid is an 8-foot-by-8-foot automated smoothie kiosk that has been deployed in college cafeterias, shopping malls and supermarkets. Blendid has signed multiple customers to deploy fresh smoothie kiosks nationwide (including Jamba) and currently has more than 500 kiosks under customer contracts.
“Blendid kiosk is designed for high foot-traffic locations and can make nine orders at once and up to 45 orders an hour,” Jain said. “You re-stock, you clean, and off you go. Let the robot make food all day long. You can even schedule orders. I want it in 35 minutes and the robot will schedule and start your order at the right time, so you get it fresh,” he continued.
“To think about this kind of labor model, the unit economics and the cash-on-cash return is off the charts,” said Jain.
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