Jun 11, 2024 - Technology

Restaurant robots can cook, serve and bus your meal now

Illustration of robot arms holding a saute pan with food, a plate of food, and a stack of dirty dishes

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Restaurants are placing big, experimental bets on robots that stir-fry, flip burgers, mix drinks, cook ramen, bake pizza, deliver meals to diners and whisk away the dirty dishes.

  • But the droids may not be ready for prime time just yet.

Why it matters: Worker shortages and inflation continue to bedevil the restaurant industry — even as it enjoys record sales.

  • Robots, tech and AI are seen as potential saviors, boosting efficiency and revenue.

Driving the news: At the National Restaurant Association's recent big annual show in Chicago, tech companies showed up in force selling labor-saving robotics.

  • Among the winners of the association's kitchen innovation awards: the "PizzaBot," which boasts that it can "accurately dispense your most expensive and labor-intensive toppings."
  • Another was I-Robo2, a robotic stir-fry machine that can prepare 30 meals an hour.
  • And then there's the Alpha Grill, which can cook 200 hamburger patties an hour — and then clean itself.
At left, a robot serving meals on a tray; at right, a stir-frying robot.
At left, the Servi food service robot from Bear Robotics. At right, the I-Robot2, which walks a human attendant through all the steps of making a stir-fry dish. Photos: Clifford A. Sobel for Axios

Also on display were a ramen vending machine and an AI robot that can automatically season and package french fries, tater tots and chicken fingers.

  • And then there was Voglebot, which bills itself as an all-in-one automated fry cook that can simultaneously make fries, chicken fingers, etc. (See a video.)

Droids that trundle into the dining room to serve food — or take dirty plates back to the kitchen — were also on ample display.

  • Examples include the 4-foot-tall Dinerbot from Keenon, which has three serving trays and can carry up to 88 pounds, and the Servi from Bear Robotics, which can carry two trays and a tub for used dishes.
A large kitchen robotics system with two men standing around it.
The Robo-Cook uses mechanical arms to fry foods on the left and grill burgers and other foods on the right. Photo: Clifford A. Sobel for Axios

How it works: The I-Robo stir-fry robot is being used in Japan, where one of the country's largest Chinese food chains has two or three in each of its kitchens, says manufacturer TechMagic.

  • A touchscreen next to the stir-fry bowl pulls up a menu of recipes for a human cook to follow, such as fried rice or chicken with vegetables.
  • It prompts the human to place the ingredients — oil, rice, vegetables, etc., some of them pre-measured — into the heated bowl.
  • The bowl spins and rotates, mixing and heating the ingredients, creating a meal in 2-3 minutes. (See it cook kung pao chicken.)
  • When finished, the unit cleans itself.

Yes, but: These first-generation machines are cool and futuristic, but some are prone to malfunction and other problems.

  • They're often not as efficient or effective as the human hands and brains they replace.

Case study: A richly funded Silicon Valley pizza robotics company called Zume shut down last year, in part because it couldn't keep the cheese from sliding off the pizza as it progressed along the line.

What they're saying: "There's no doubt the future looks like more robotics in the kitchen," Michelle Korsmo, CEO of the National Restaurant Association, tells Axios.

  • "It's a question of whether robotics are in the dining room itself," she said. "It depends a lot on the particular restaurant and what experience they're trying to bring."
  • Restaurateurs, she said, "are excited about what technology can bring in learning more about their customers and making their businesses more efficient."
  • And "the rise of technology in the dining experience is becoming increasingly a part of daily life for all customers."
A ramen vending machine is attended by two women.
This ramen vending machine has made inroads in college dorms and corporate cafeterias. Photo: Clifford A. Sobel for Axios

Zoom out: Some big names in the restaurant industry are going all in on robotics.

  • Sweetgreen in 2021 acquired a robotic food-prep startup called Spyce and, two years later, opened its own automated restaurant called Infinite Kitchen.
  • The founder of Chipotle, Steve Ells, has started a takeout chain called Kernel where the robots do most of the cooking.

Between the lines: Robot cooks and servers are showy baubles that may mask where restaurant technology is making the biggest impact: in back-end systems.

  • New systems use AI to improve order-taking, inventory management, staff scheduling and home delivery.
  • AI-driven marketing and social media systems are helping restaurants reel in customers — and bring back regulars — with targeted promotional offers for people's favorite dishes and other specials.
At left, the Voglebot is a robot all-in-one kitchen; at right, a machine that custom prints cookies.
At left, the Voglebot is an all-in-one automated fry cook. At right, a tabletop robot can custom-print cookies. Photos: Jennifer A. Kingson for Axios

More sophisticated apps allow diners to customize their meals more than ever.

  • "Regardless of what you hear about QR-code resistance, customers are comfortable and want these options," Korsmo said. "And we're talking about customers of all ages."

Fun fact: "Dashboard dining" is a buzz phrase in restaurant circles, as more consumers eat meals in their cars.

  • A lot of innovation is happening at the drive-thru, where AI voice bots take your order and recommend items to go with it.

The bottom line: Interacting with people — a helpful server, or charming maitre d' — is part of the fun of eating out.

  • "There's no doubt that technology can only go so far," Korsmo said. "What makes a restaurant great and what attracts people to come to restaurants is that 'high touch' aspect."
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