From flipping burgers to baking bread, robots can do a number of activities in the kitchen and the demand for these automated “chefs” is on the rise as the pandemic mandates social distancing to be maintained among staff and customers at the restaurant.
Well before the coronavirus pandemic, robot food service was a phenomenon as hospitals, campus cafeterias and others sought to satisfy the demand for personalized, new choices all day long while keeping labor costs under control.
Robot chefs have already worked in locations such as Creator, a San Francisco burger bar, and South Korea’s Dal(dot)komm Coffee outlets.
Many say robots might be moving from being a curiosity to a requirement. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports there is low risk of getting infected with COVID-19 by handling or consuming food outside the home. But it needs to be noted that globally several outbreaks have occurred among the restaurant workers and patrons.
Vipin Jain, the co-founder and CEO of Blendid, a Silicon Valley startup believes that “in the next two years you will see pretty significant robotic adoption in the food space because of COVID-19”.
Blendid has robot kiosks that are capable of making a variety of fresh smoothies. For example, if customers want more kale or less ginger, they can order from a smartphone app, and change the recipe. An employee at Blendid refills the supplies once or twice a day.
Only a few are still working around San Francisco, but Blendid has started contract negotiations with hospitals, businesses, shopping centers and grocery stores since the pandemic began.
“What used to be forward-thinking – last year, pre-COVID – has become current thinking,” Jain said.
Know the “Chef” robots
California-based Chowbotics, started to get more inquiries about Sally, a robot about the size of a refrigerator making a range of salads and bowls as the salad bars shut down. Sally lets customers select from 22 ready-made ingredients stored in the machine. It can prepare about 65 bowls a day before the ingredients need to be refilled by kitchen staff.
Chowbotics had sold about 125 of its $35,000 robots prior to this year, mainly to hospitals and universities. But sales have jumped more than 60% since the coronavirus struck, said CEO Rick Wilmer, with increasing demand from grocery stores, senior living centers, and even the United States Defence agency.
Wilkinson Baking Co., whose BreadBot mixes, forms, and bakes bread loaves, has also received more inquiries.
Walla Walla, Washington-based company’s CEO Randall Wilkinson said the BreadBot serves shifting needs. Self-service options like olive bars are no longer wanted by grocery shoppers, but they still want fresh and local food. He believes that seeing the way food is made gives more confidence to the customers.
The White Castle, a US-based hamburger chain will trial a robot arm that can cook french fries and other foods soon. The robot, dubbed Flippy, is built by Miso Robotics, based in Pasadena, California.
Flippy costs $30,000, with a monthly support charge of $1,500. Miso hopes to sell the robot for free by the middle of next year but will charge a higher monthly fee.
But robot cooks were not always accepted. Spyce, a restaurant in Boston with a robot-run kitchen, closed in November to retool its menu. In January, Zume, a Silicon Valley startup that was making pizzas with robots, shut down its pizza business. Now it is making face masks and biodegradable containers for takeaways.
The reason could be that food is very personal and most people expect human involvement in it.
But isn’t it taking away jobs?
Automated food companies say they are not seeking to replace human employees. White Castle CEO Richardson says Flippy would encourage managers to redeploy employees to drive-thru lanes or help them cover a shift when an employee calls in sick. Chowbotics’ Wilmer says Sally will help build jobs as it keeps selling food at times of the day when it wasn’t available before.