“Robot” restaurants are hitting the headlines everywhere from China to the US. In what was once only a scene out of a sci-fi movie, robots have been deployed in many restaurants to handle everything from order taking to serving tables, payment, burger flipping and food delivery. However, pizza served with a side of technology isn’t exactly new. Restaurants have long have embraced technology, whether via traditional point of sale or online reservation systems that now include automatic text message alerts.
In today’s tech lead environment, many restaurants now use tablet ordering systems and on-demand food delivery apps, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and innovations such as chatbots to guide customers through menus and help them order. But the next wave of food service automation is going even further.
Seattle start-up Picnic – previously known as Otto Robotics and Vivid Robotics – has a developed a pizzabot; a freestanding, intelligent, automated pizza assembly platform for restaurants. The machine is controlled by a customer-facing app allowing customers to order and customize their toppings. Once an order for pizza is placed, it enters a digital queue and the robot starts making the pie as soon as the dough is put in place. The pizzabot can make 300, 12-inch pizzas per hour and 180 18-inch pizzas per hour and while the bot does its share of the work, dough preparation, sauce making and baking are all done by non-robots, aka humans. Not only that but the system sends data back to Picnic via the internet in order for the robot to learn from its mistakes. The machine is still in trial phase with a production version available from early next year.
While this may sound like a futuristic revolution in food preparation, the automation of food, particularly in the fast food industry has become increasingly common. In Pasadena, California burger chain CaliBurger employed Flippy, a “real-life” robot chef, who can cook 300 burgers per hour. Using on-board sensors and cameras, it prepares, cooks and plates up food. It can see when a burger needs to be flipped and detect the temperature of the food it is cooking. Flippy was so popular on his first day back in March that he couldn’t keep up with demand!
Pizzbot and Flippy might seem like a novelty, but research from the McKinsey Global Institute has found that the foodservice sector is one of the ripest to benefit from the introduction of robots. According to the analysis, 73% of the activities foodservice workers perform – including preparing, cooking and serving food – have the potential to be automated based on technical considerations. By automating repetitive tasks allows restaurants to be more efficient with their labor in the face of slim margins and workforce shortages.
So, are robots poised to take over the future of fast-food service and turn employees into an endangered species? Abraham Pizam, chair in tourism management and the founding dean of Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida, is convinced that the fast-food industry is on a path to be the first to fully automate. This does sound a little extreme and it’s a position that is not popular or shared among academic peers. And according to analysts at McKinsey, it’s not likely to be curtains any time soon for chefs, waiters or delivery drivers. While the technical potential for automating foodservice tasks are high, their research found, the current wage rates for some of these activities are among the lowest in the US, and as their report states “…a business case based solely on reducing labor costs may be unconvincing,”.
It is evident, like in most other industries, that technology including AI has a key role to play in the future of the restaurant industry but the type of experience a business wants to provide its customers, combined with forces like labor and real estate costs, will really influence the rate at which automation replaces humans and disrupts the traditional workflow. Ultimately, robots do have a place in the future of food service but it will be the restaurants, consumers and technology companies that will determine what technology is here to stay and what is novelty.