What happens when four MIT grads create a restaurant?
The answer could very well be Spyce, a single Boston restaurant that serves a selection of bowls at $7.50. This single-unit chain last week received $21 million in funding from a pair of big-name investment funds and some well-known chefs—even though it has just one location that’s been open a few months.
The reason is the way its food is prepared, with a robotic system that portions the food, prepares it in tumbling woks and pours it into a bowl, where it’s finished with cold ingredients and presented to the customer in three minutes.
“Our concept is intended to be affordable,” co-founder and CEO Michael Farid tells Restaurant Business. “Our goal is to serve a really delicious meal that’s craveable and healthy but still affordable.”
The restaurant industry’s biggest challenge in 2018, and for the foreseeable future, is labor. A shortage of available workers has driven up costs and caused numerous problems, often limiting chains’ ability to open locations. It has also highlighted a need for restaurant companies to do more with less.
Investors and executives have been pushing a slew of new technologies in a bid to solve this problem. Those efforts range from tabletop tablets and self-order kiosks to salad-making robots.
But the back-of-house innovation at Spyce could top them all, potentially making it the first truly robotic restaurant chain in the U.S. Its founders say that the robotics help improve consistency and speed while enabling the company to serve its food at reasonable prices.
“The robotics enables us to be efficient enough to have really amazing meals at a lower price point than what you would have otherwise,” Farid says.
For the most part, the story of Spyce’s creation is a familiar one in the industry, with four people meeting, developing an idea for a restaurant and then putting that idea into action.
In this instance, Farid was in grad school at MIT, frustrated that he couldn’t find a healthy meal option for less than $10.
“I told the three co-founders about it and we got started on the project,” Farid says. “We wanted to be in the business of selling food, rather than selling technology.” Those three co-founders are Brady Knight, Kale Rogers and Luke Schlueter.
“We were studying mechanical engineering,” Farid says. “Robotics was the natural thing we gravitated toward.”
The group worked hand-in-hand on both its robotics and its menu. They had some ideas at the beginning, but those ideas evolved as the menu was developing.
And they went big as they targeted someone to help with that menu: Daniel Boulud.
“We were four MIT engineers,” Farid says. “None of us were trained chefs. We had a passion for cooking, but we were not trained at it.”
How did they get in touch with him?
“We guessed his email address,” Farid admits. “We guessed a lot of email addresses and sent him a video of our prototype.”
One of those emails was the right one. Boulud took an interest in the robotics and helped Spyce hire its executive chef, Sam Benson, who had worked for Cafe Boulud as well as Chipotle Mexican Grill.
Boulud and Benson helped develop the concept and the menu, featuring a selection of bowls such as the Latin bowl featuring roasted chicken, tomatoes, chiles, bell peppers, black beans, corn, brown rice, avocado, crema, cabbage slaw, radish and cilantro. Or the Indian bowl, with roasted chicken, potatoes and peas in a tikka masala sauce, brown rice, cilantro, puffed rice, tamarind chutney and yogurt. The bowls can also be customized.
The robotics were then perfected around the concept and the menu.
Spyce opened its first location in May. The location looks like a typical fast-casual concept, with an industrial design, a communal, bar-height table with pendant lights, some regular seating and a small patio outside of its downtown storefront.
But it also features self-order kiosks. And in the back of the restaurant is a counter overseen by the robotics, notably seven woks tipped at an angle, facing the customer. Digital screens above each wok update customers on the status of their order. A video on the company’s website best describes how the system works.
Ingredients are portioned onto a transport system that runs back and forth, tossing ingredients into the woks. The woks use induction heating to cook the food, tumbling to cook it evenly, and when they’re done they pour the meal into bowls.
There, a garde manger, or pantry chef, takes the bowl and adds cold ingredients from the counter and hands it to the customer.
Khosla Ventures, founded in 2004 by the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, Vinod Khosla, was an early investor. And participants in this round of funds include Collaborative Fund, which has invested in concepts such as Blue Bottle Coffee and Sweetgreen, as well as eBay and Zulily investor Maveron. Chefs investing include Thomas Keller, Jerome Bocuse and Gavin Kaysen.
The restaurant has done well so far. And with the funds, it plans to perfect its technology and concept and start adding locations, with the goal of doubling in size.
“We’re going to take our existing concept and improve it,” Farid says. Indeed, in that sense it is similar to just about every other growing chain.
“We’re no different,” he says. “We’re collecting a lot of customer data and learning from customers and figuring out ways to make ourselves better.”