The fry cook is a droid
As labor shortages continue to bedevil the food service industry, robots are transforming how restaurants cook french fries, brew coffee, fry tortilla chips and grill burgers.
Why it matters: "Smarter" back-of-the-house machines are helping companies serve more consistent food — and more batches of it — in safer and more virus-proof kitchens.
- For humans, this means fewer grease burns and goof-ups tied to juggling too many orders.
- For employers, it means lower payrolls and the luxury of shifting workers to customer-facing positions.
Driving the news: Now that front-of-the-house automation has grown ubiquitous — we almost expect to order food through a kiosk — some of the biggest innovations in quick-serve restaurants are in meal preparation.
- Robots with artificial intelligence don't just blindly plop mounds of hash browns into a deep fryer: They can tell if a basket handle is askew or the oil is too hot and correct the problem.
- Machines are taking over a lot of mundane tasks that are prone to human error, like monitoring refrigerator conditions, cleaning exhaust hoods and disposing of fry oil.
- Big chains like Burger King and McDonald's have "innovation teams" looking at how robotics can improve all aspects of the operation.
Details: Flippy, a burger-flipping droid made by a company called Miso Robotics, has been making a splash at CaliBurger, which is showcasing Flippy's talents at its store in Pasadena.
Chains like White Castle and Jack-in-the-Box are using a next-generation machine called Flippy 2.
- It's a ceiling-mounted automated fry station with a robotic arm that can turn out food round-the-clock and distinguish between a chicken wing and a nugget.
- Miso Robotics also makes machines like Chippy, which turns out tortilla chips for Chipotle, and CookRight Coffee, which monitors the temperature and quantity of coffee in urns for Panera Bread.
- Sweetgreen recently purchased a Boston-based kitchen robotics company called Spyce Foods, spun out of MIT, which churns out bowls of food in automated woks.
The big picture: "We're trying to fundamentally transform how food is prepared," Mike Bell, CEO of Miso Robotics, tells Axios. "The vision behind all this is to have a fully integrated platform of both hardware and software."
What they're saying: "Humans are pretty bad at managing food timers when there's eight of them beeping and buzzing" in very short time spans, Bell says.
- "So if you're 10 or 15 seconds late," the food is too brown and crisp, and "if you're 10 seconds early, it's kind of wilted and not that good."
- His Flippy 2 can turn out hundreds of perfectly-timed baskets of food without complaint, Bell says. "All the human has to do is receive the cooked food at the other end of the fry station."
What's next: A new product from Miso called Sippy can dispense soft drinks and seal the cups with lids; future products might be able to scoop ice cream or prepare frozen drinks.
- "We're asked all the time about all forms of food prep — putting items on pizza, assembling sandwiches," Bell tells Axios. "There's just a ton of opportunities."
Go deeper: We tried it: a pizza vending machine
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on May 3.