How Restaurant Automation and Robot Chefs Are Shaping the Future
- Sarah Gurr
- 5 Min Read
Imagine entering a brightly designed restaurant and stooping slightly to allow a machine to scan your face. The kiosk screen lights up, and the machine makes a recommendation. It suggests ordering soybean milk and a chicken hamburger meal, an odd combination that you nonetheless order. Why? The machine had divined, down to the correct cup size of your drink, your deepest cravings.
How far-fetched is this scenario considering that a KFC restaurant in Beijing is pioneering facial recognition technology to predict and remember people’s fast food choices with automation? Then there’s Pizza Hut, which teamed up with Toyota last year to develop a concept for a driverless car that cooks and delivers fresh pies (test models could hit the streets by 2020). The restaurant industry is showering a blizzard of cash at automation and robotics, testing out flying pizza drones and pizza-slinging and mind-reading robot chefs.
Restaurants Turn to Automation to Offset Rising Costs
One of the forces blowing in these innovations is the national fight for the $15 minimum wage. Another factor is the rising costs of commercial rents. Then there’s the national sales slump in restaurant dining as more and more consumers fall into the habit of ordering food delivery and catering. Restaurants investing in an automated future are betting that robot chefs can ultimately help them to shed costs in labor and optimize their business.
Ed Rensi, former CEO of McDonald’s USA, has argued that he could buy a robot chef to do the work of a fry cook for roughly the same cost (or less) as the employee’s annual minimum-wage salary. Then, the team at Spyce, in Boston, has noted that automation allows them to price menu items at around $7, which is not possible with human workers.
Robot Chefs Have Arrived in Our Backyard
Whether you’re prepared for this vision of the future, restaurant automation has already arrived in America’s backyard. From Starbucks’s mobile app to the touch-screen kiosks unleashed by McDonald’s, automation is so ubiquitous these days that it’s almost easy to forget that many restaurant services and transactions are handled by machines. Reservations are made online. Orders are made on a touch screen and then sent to the kitchen electronically. Drinks are poured out precisely by sleek machines. Bills are settled with a swipe on an iPad.
It’s not just robot waiters that are being unleashed. Research companies specializing in robotics are doling out robot chefs, too. The smartest robot chefs can sling burritos and pepperoni pies, as well as cut noodles and custom-grind 360 hamburgers every hour on the dot. One machine, called the BratWurst Bot, is nearly as nimble as Bobby Flay on the grill. If you give it orders, the machine carries out those commands. Using one arm and a pair of tongs, it can place sausages on the grill, turn them occasionally until they are cooked through, and serve them, all while starting new orders.
At the restaurant Henn-na outside Nagasaki, Japan, food is prepared by a line of humanoid robot chefs that shake cocktail drinks, fry donuts, shoot out perfectly portioned salads, and cook pancakes with spatula-like arms.
Some machines are even deployed to handle nearly all the cooking. Spyce has an automated kitchen that requires very little human help to cook a meal. An assembly line of wok-like robot chefs mixes and heats ingredients for the salad and grain bowls on the menu.
Step Inside the Restaurant in Augmented Reality
It gets even more interesting with augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). According to TechCrunch, the next generation of cooks might be trained with AR/VR software, which would make training more cost efficient. Cooks have often been trained on real food. But AR/VR software gives chefs more chances to practice cooking in replica kitchens programed to mimic conditions of a high-volume kitchen. It’s a neat idea because it can take months for a chef to develop the dexterity, speed, and precision needed in a professional kitchen. Besides, no operator wants to throw out baskets of subpar chicken with every employee training, which might be why KFC rolled out its VR employee-training game. We’re ostensibly moving to a future in which AR/VR software shape how restaurants handle HR, consumer education, and even marketing. (Check out the holographic experience of dishes from chef Dominique Crenn’s cookbook Metamorphosis of Taste.)
It’s clear there’s a countdown to the moment when robots and automation become prominent features of every restaurant. The cost of robots, even sophisticated ones, has dropped by 40 percent since 2005, according to the Boston Consulting Group. As the technology improves and becomes more affordable, restaurant automation will make a lot more sense.
While spinning and dancing robot chefs are currently treated as spectacle, restaurant automation might one day become the new norm. After all, microwave ovens and ATM machines were once considered big-ticket oddities before they took over the world.
Learn about other trends that could impact your restaurant.