Food robots are serving up changes in the restaurant industry
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.
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.
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.
Location: San Francisco
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.
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.
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.
Location: Redwood City, Calif.
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.
Location: Sunnyvale, Calif.
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
Location: Walla Walla, Wash.
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.
Location: Mountain View, Calif.
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.
Location: Berkeley, Calif.
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.
Location: Waltham, Mass.
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.
Images via company websites, social media and Shutterstock