Updated May 7, 2022 - Technology

The fry cook is a droid

A chef's hat with a green "on" button

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

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."

Flippy 2, a robot fry cook
Flippy 2 prepares chicken wings. Photo courtesy of Miso Robotics

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

The hamburger vending machine has arrived

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on May 3.

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