Food robots are serving up changes in the restaurant industry

March 28, 2019
Updated: October 31, 2019
Written by Gordon Gottsegen

In the late 1940s, when San Bernardino, Calif. restaurateurs Dick and Mac McDonald transformed their tiny hot dog drive-thru into a tiny burger shack, they focused on more than just its limited menu. Wanting also to provide faster service, the duo streamlined operations via their "Speedee Service System" and turned a tidy profit.

Restaurant Robots

Robots in restaurants, also called automated restaurants, are making the food industry safer, personalized and more efficient. Robots can be found throughout the restaurant industry flipping burgers to specific preferences, pouring the perfect cup of coffee or even preparing fast-casual “bowled” meals.

 Years later a food industry salesman named Ray Kroc bought them out and soon began expanding across America. The chain now has more than 36,000 restaurants worldwide and is part of a sprawling fast food industry whose total 2018 revenue hit $250 billion in the U.S. alone.

This restaurant robot makes (seemingly) delicious burgers from start to finish.

While the fast food industry of today is a vast departure from its earliest incarnation, one thing hasn't changed: a constant drive toward greater efficiency. And efficiency requires innovation, which decades ago was embodied by the Speedee Service System and today relies increasingly on automation.  

That's where robots come in.

Just as fast food and the techniques it introduced transformed the restaurant industry years ago, robotic automation is changing today's food sector. Assigning menial and repetitive tasks to machines can enhance production and increase output while improving safety and allowing humans to focus on other related work that requires more thinking. 

Check out these food industry companies that use robots to perform a variety of functions.

Creator Burger robots in restaurants food service


Location: San Francisco, California

How it's using robots: The hamburger is iconically American, and people are always looking for ways to improve it. San Francisco restaurant Creator does so with robot help. The establishment's Rube Goldberg-esque (Goldburger-esque?) machine handles every step of burger-making process: grinding beef, frying patties, toasting buns, dispensing condiments and assembling burgers, which are then sold for a very reasonable (especially by San Francisco standards) $6. Less human labor equals customer savings.

Industry impact: Burger prep is only one part of the operation. Creator still employs humans to take orders and staff its restaurant. And some notable Bay Area chefs like Nick Balla (Bar Tartine) and Tu David Phu (Acquerello) have partnered with the eatery to design specialty burgers.


Briggo Coffee Robot


Location: Austin, Texas

How it's using robots: Briggo is a mini cafe run by robot baristas. Here's how it works: customers order coffee and various coffee-based drinks via app or using tablets at Briggo’s "Coffee Haus" kiosks, where the drinks are made entirely by machine. When orders are ready, it's just a matter of tapping a button, grabbing your beverage and sipping. Carefully, please.  

Industry impact: Briggo was recently named one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies for 2019. It has locations across Texas, with another one planned for San Francisco International Airport in spring 2019.


Spyce Bowl Robotic Kitchen


Location: Boston, Massachusetts

How it's using robots: Spyce prepares fast-casual "bowled" meals in its robotic kitchen. After customers select from the menu, robots portion out and dispense ingredients into robo-woks, which cook the food in three minutes or less. Healthy meals are the focus, and there are ample customization and vegetarian/vegan options. Meals cost $7.50.

Industry impact: Spyce recruited celebrity chef David Boloud to be its culinary director and create the menu. The establishment has one location in Boston.


Chowbotics food robots


Location: Redwood City, California

How it's using robots: Chowbotics’ food robot, Sally, is essentially an evolved vending machine that prepares salads, grain bowls and other bowl-styled meals. Customers can select from a variety of ingredients that Sally keeps fresh in a refrigerated compartment. Sally robots are stationed in hospitals, universities and other places where diners want a quick bite or round-the-clock meals.

Industry impact: While Sally can turn a profit by making only nine bowls a day, she's reportedly capable of a much greater output.


Blendid smoothie robot


Location: Sunnyvale, California

How it's using robotics: Blendid's robotic smoothie-making booth, dubbed "Chef B," lets customers choose what kind of smoothie they want, then uses a mechanical arm to dispense ingredients, blend them, pour the resulting concoction into a cup and serve it up.

Industry impact: Blendid's two locations are in Sunnyvale and San Francisco.


Wilkinson Baking Company food robot
Wilkinson Baking Company

Wilkinson Baking Company

Location: Walla Walla, Washington

How it's using robotics: Wilkinson Baking Company is turning the ancient art of bread making into a robot-automated process. Despite its small footprint, the company's BreadBot does the work of a full bakery. Using a mix of dry ingredients, the machine blends, prepares and cooks the dough. Intended for grocery stores, the BreadBot provides customers with freshly baked bread that’s prepared on site.

Industry impact: Wilkinson recently showed off its BreadBot at CES 2019.


Zume pizza robots
Zume Pizza

Zume Pizza

Location: Mountain View, California

How it's using robotics: Zume unites people and robots to achieve a common goal: pizza. While humans pick produce and make sauces, robots cover more repetitive and dangerous tasks — like sliding pizza dough into 700-degree ovens. Lacking a physical storefront, Zume delivers its pizzas via mobile kitchen food trucks.

Industry impact: SoftBank recently invested $375 million in Zume, which is now valued at $2.25 billion.


Kiwi delivery robot
Kiwi Campus

Kiwi Campus

Location: Berkeley, California

How it's using robotics: Food robotics is about more than just food preparation. Companies also use robots to improve delivery. Kiwi employs a fleet of food delivery bots — different kinds for each step in the process — to make the transport of food to customers as cheap and efficient as possible. 

Industry impact: Operating in a relatively small area, Kiwi serves college campuses like UC Berkeley and UCLA. As of February 2019, the company's record is about 500 deliveries in a day.


Takeoff delivery robot


Location: Waltham, Massachusetts

How it's using robots: Lots of people use Instacart or Amazon Prime to have someone else do their grocery shopping. Robots can serve the same purpose, and Takeoff is planning to roll out fully automated grocery stores that pick and deliver groceries. By automating that experience, the company aims to shrink store size and minimize delivery prices.

Industry impact: Takeoff teamed up with grocery chain Sedanos to offer same-day delivery and pickup in Miami.

RelatedRead More Robotics Stories

Images via company websites, social media and Shutterstock

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