In a post-pandemic world, the intimacy and warmth that used to be key to a restaurant’s success have become liabilities. Instead restaurants now must emphasize their safety, hygiene, and efficiency. That means minimizing contact and reducing risk of contamination at every step of their operation. Enter robot restaurants.
By using robots and AI to replace human workers, restaurants can reduce the number of points of contact. Startups and enterprises have been experimenting with robots for years, primarily as a way to save on labor costs. But the pandemic has accelerated the process as well as highlighting the safety and hygiene benefits of robots, and we can expect robots to become a permanent fixture in restaurants in the coming years.
Spyce was one of the first robot restaurants to open in the US with their location in Downtown Crossing, Boston. Serving healthy bowls of vegetables and protein, the restaurant uses custom built robots to prepare the meals. The robot assembly line first dispenses the ingredients into a cooking pot, which is then heated and mixed. After being cooked for a few minutes, the pot pours the cooked meal into a bowl, and is automatically cleaned and reset for the next order.
The ordering experience is also automated, with orders being placed solely via app or kiosk. The restaurant was founded by a team of MIT graduates, and is backed by leading chefs including Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud. With the success of their first location, they are planning on expanding to their second location in Harvard Square in 2021.
Dexai is another Boston-area company building robots for the kitchen. They use standard industrial hardware but program it with custom-built AI software they’ve designed for restaurants. Unlike other systems, the idea is to put the robot into an existing kitchen, rather than having to redesign a kitchen entirely around the robot restaurant concept.
Dexai’s software can recognize its environment and so it can be dropped into any restaurant and learn to perform the required tasks. The main technological innovation they leverage is the ability to work with “deformable” materials, which basically all food items are. (Most standard robotics systems work with non-deformable materials, like metal or hard plastics.) It’s already able to scoop ice cream and make healthy salad and grain bowls, and because the robot arm uses standard utensils can expand to a potentially limitless number of foods.
Courtesy of Miso Robotics
Miso Robotics is trying to replace that most iconic of fast-food workers: the burger flipper. Their robot Flippy is an arm attached to a spatula that can automatically put burgers on the grill and take them off when they’re done. The system is powered by a cloud-connected learning platform, which uses 3D, thermal, and regular vision to identify when burgers start grilling and when they’re cooked.
Flippy started working with CaliBurger starting in 2016, and they recently announced a pilot program with White Castle to bring Flippy’s burgers to even more diners.
While food prep robots make sure that the cooking process is germ-free, robot waiters are there to reduce the amount of face-to-face contact diners have with restaurant staff. This trend took off first in China, where they serve mainly to greet customers and to deliver food to tables.
The initial wave of interest turned out mostly to be a marketing gimmick and failed to produce lasting improvements in efficiency (or even lasting brand value for the restaurants using them). However with COVID, the trend has widened. There are stories of restaurants in Europe who are experimenting with these robots, as well as renewed interest in China.
AI Phone Answering
Robot restaurants don’t just have robots in the store, they have AI in all their channels. While not necessarily a sanitation measure, using AI phone answering services has many of the other benefits of robots in the restaurant, such as consistency and labor savings.
AI phone answering software like Greet helps restaurants answer the phone with a customized message and respond to caller questions and take orders. Using cutting edge neural network technology, the AI is able to understand customer requests in plain English and respond in a way that is true to the restaurant’s brand. By offloading the job of answering the phone to software, the restaurant can reallocate their staff to in-store tasks like actually processing orders and serving customers, as well as streamlining operations by reducing phone interruptions by 50%.