When Jalene Edwards found out his White Castle restaurant was getting a robot, he thought it sounded a little crazy.
“I’ve never heard of anything like Flippy, as far as a robot that cooks food for us,” he said. “We’re pretty old school here.”
The veteran crew manager’s wariness is understandable. Flippy, the automated frying arm made by Miso Robotics, is part of a growing wave of high-tech kitchen robots that are still new and relatively untested at scale. (White Castle is the first large chain to test Flippy, and plans to install the bot in 10 more locations.) Machines that can top pizza or cook burgers promise attractive benefits, such as labor savings, operational efficiency and better data. But they also represent a big change in how the back of house operates.
“I’m usually just a little nervous about any change in the kitchen, especially once you’ve had a couple years in the same location, you get into the same routine,” Edwards said. “When you change something as major as french fry, that makes you a little nervous.”
But Flippy quickly won him over. The bot was easy to use, and it gave his staff more time to interact with customers, many of whom are regulars at the restaurant in Merrillville, Ind. It also smoothed kitchen operations.
“We’re able to stay more on topic and multitask a little easier,” he said. “It’s an extra person for us, essentially.”
Photograph courtesy of Miso Robotics
Indeed, robots have shown an ability to manage a heavy workload in the back of house. Picnic, which makes a robot that tops pizzas, saw strong results in a pilot with Centerplate at T-Mobile Park in Seattle last year.
“The guy in the kitchen was making all the pizzas for all the suites, and it took him hours, and he tended to make them ahead of time,” said Picnic CEO Clayton Wood. After Picnic was installed and began churning out hundreds of pies in an hour, Wood recalled the employee saying, “This is great, I don’t have to make pizza anymore.”
“We’re able to stay more on topic and multitask a little easier. It’s an extra person for us, essentially.” —Jalene Edwards, White Castle
While automation’s labor impact can be considerable, operators stress that it’s not intended to replace human jobs.
“For us, [Picnic] is a way to limit and reduce some tasks that are very repetitive for our people,” said Aurelia Valot, VP of digital transformation for Sodexo, the parent company of Centerplate. “It’s also a way to have staff focusing more on the sale and customer relations.”
Wood said robots are beginning to overcome the stigma that they’re humanoid machines coming to take people’s jobs. At the end of the day, he said, robots are a tool—Picnic even removed “Robotics” from its name for that reason.
“The word ‘robot’ in a kitchen setting, it’s an appliance. You’ve got a lot of automated equipment in the kitchen,” he said.
Like other appliances, robots on the market today require lots of human support, whether it’s programming orders, restocking ingredients or cleaning.
Photograph courtesy of Spyce
“It’s not like we’re staffing someone who’s purely there for human touch,” said Michael Farid, CEO of robot-powered bowl concept Spyce, which needs about six or seven employees at peak times. “This isn’t a vending machine. There’s so much work that has to happen in the restaurant.”
Though its robot, which cooks the food and assembles the bowls, is still front and center, Farid said the machine is primarily a means to accomplish Spyce’s goal: quality food delivered quickly and to guests’ specifications.
“Automation is not the product—automation is the enabler,” he said.
“This isn’t a vending machine. There’s so much work that has to happen in the restaurant.” —Michael Farid, Spyce
Like Spyce, others tout robots’ ability to make food faster and more consistently—and maybe even flat-out better—than humans. The burger-making robot at Creator in San Francisco grinds beef to order and packs the patties “so gently and loosely that human hands can’t hold them,” the company said.
“This is near-impossible in an upscale restaurant, let alone a high-volume casual operation,” founder Alex Vardakostas said in an email. “You’re not only griddling a bunch of patties at once and trying to cook the beef to perfect doneness by eyeballing; you’re trying to toast buns just right, spreading sauces just right—it is impossible to do it all perfectly, every time, when you’re making a lot of them. But the culinary device does it right precisely, quickly and effortlessly.”
While robots may be able to outperform human chefs in some cases, consumers have said they still prefer a person to be making their food, at least in fine dining.
In a recent study of consumer sentiment around foodservice robots, “The term ‘human touch’ kept coming up over and over and over again,” said Dina Marie Zemke, a professor at Ball State University who led the study. “People said, ‘I like to know that a person is handling my food. I like to know that human effort and the human touch is involved.’”
That could be one factor slowing more widespread adoption by restaurants.
“Food is a very intimate experience,” said Drew Kellogg, CEO of Boston-based chain Oath Pizza. “If it’s just calories served by a machine, you’re now paying for the quality of the calorie, and there’s no experience to it.” Oath has no plans to automate anytime soon, he said.
“It is impossible to do it all perfectly, every time, when you’re making a lot of [burgers]. But the culinary device does it right precisely, quickly and effortlessly.” —Alex Vardakostas, Creator
Some see robots as an experience in themselves—even those that handle back-of-house tasks. Sodexo, for instance, puts Picnic in front of guests wherever possible because they like to watch their pizza being made, Valot said. A new version of the bot unveiled in November makes the process more visible.
“We found from demos that people were just fascinated watching the machinery work and watching the pizza get made,” Wood said.
Some robotics companies, such as Piestro, are taking that concept even further with flashy, fully automated bots. The idea is to give customers an experience while allowing operators to expand their footprint beyond the four walls—reimagining the restaurant as a self-contained kitchen in a box.
“This is something the customer can actually enjoy,” said Massimo De Marco, CEO of Piestro, which can make a 12-inch pizza in three minutes. “You can walk over to the Piestro machine and order the pizza and then watch the pizza be made right in front of you.”
Still, many in the industry view the future of restaurant kitchens as a co-botic environment, where humans work alongside robots like Flippy that handle less-desirable tasks. And even the most robot-forward concepts believe the human connection is still an essential part of dining out.
“I do think it would be kind of a dreary experience to come to the pickup window and you didn’t see a single soul,” Farid said of Spyce. “By no means do I think that restaurants are moving toward a quote-unquote fully automated scenario. Not anytime soon, if ever.”