Technology

Burger robot faces tough crowd at the National Restaurant Show

Aniai’s Alpha Grill attracted plenty of curiosity Saturday, but operators seemed hesitant to commit.
The Alpha Grill can cook 200 patties in an hour. | Photo by Joe Guszkowski

A robotic burger grill drew a crowd of onlookers during the first day of the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago on Saturday. And while many were curious to see what the bot could do, they were on the fence about actually using it in their operations.

The robot, Alpha Grill, is made by a company called Aniai. The double-sided grill works a bit like an automated George Foreman, cooking the beef from both sides and then depositing it into a warming tray. It can produce 200 patties an hour this way. An AI-powered camera also monitors the patties for quality control.

Aniai initially developed the robot for the Korean market. The Asian country has the world’s lowest fertility rate, which has put its restaurant labor pool in serious jeopardy. The bot has therefore had strong uptake there. Lotteria, one of Korea’s biggest burger chains, is using the machine in its restaurants (and demoing it at the Show).

U.S. restaurateurs have been tougher to crack. “Robotics is kind of nerve-wracking to the industry,” said Stephen Worley, operations manager for Aniai. 

It’s not that the Alpha Grill isn’t cutting edge. It has been recognized by the Show’s Kitchen Innovation Awards for top-notch equipment two years in a row, last year for the bot itself and this year for the AI vision component.

Rather, Worley said, operators are hesitant to turn over their kitchens to a bot. “I think us Americans have control issues,” he said.

In Korea, adoption has been a breeze by comparison, he said. 

Lotteria

Korean burger chain Lotteria was showing off Alpha Grill. | Photo by Joe Guszkowski

An executive with Burger Shack in the Cayman Islands came to see Alpha Grill because wages in the British territory could soon rise to $8.75 an hour, from $6. But he was skeptical the bot would be able to replace workers. His employees would still need to smash the burgers before they went on the grill and assemble them once they came off.

“I wouldn’t be able to cut costs,” he said. But the machine can grill patties in as little as one minute, which would help Burger Shack’s speed. “The customer would be happier, which is a plus, I guess.”

Osmen Gocen, who owns a burger and chicken restaurant in Istanbul, was also interested in Alpha Grill’s labor-saving abilities. Good workers are hard to find and expensive, he said. But he winced at the robot’s $120,000 price tag.

“It’s really expensive,” he said, noting that his budget was in the $50,000 to $60,000 range. “I have to think.” 

Jin Park stopped by Aniai’s booth to try a burger and perhaps compare notes. He is the owner of Game of Irons, an indoor golf and food concept in Oak Brook, Illinois. The kitchen in the 20,000 square-foot space can be run by just one person, thanks to a lot of automation, he said. But he wasn’t interested in adding an Alpha Grill to the works.

“I’m just curious to try the taste,” he said, taking a bite out of a robo-made Lotteria burger. “It’s OK.”

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