Transforming the Fast Food Kitchen—The Present and Future of Automation

If someone told you 10 years ago that there would be unmanned aerial vehicles, i.e. drones, flying in mass numbers across America’s skies, an estimated 2.5 million, or self-driving cars, you probably would have shrugged it off as an active imagination. Unless, of course, you are of the age in which artificial intelligence is an expected part of everyday life and interactions with your fellow humans is on the decline. Howard Hughes would have thrived in this environment.

Restaurants and Robots

So what does this new world of artificial intelligence (AI) and robots have to do with restaurants? Currently, it’s changing the face and function of how and who they do business with. And the future is looking even more automated. Let’s take a look at the present environment before we peer into the not so distant future. 

  • Eatsa, an almost fully automated small fast-food chain, was first introduced to the American public in 2015. Here is a look at dining at Eatsa from a customer’s viewpoint. You enter the modern and surprisingly human-less eatery and place your order at an iPad kiosk. You then proceed to a wall of glass cubbies where, when your order has been prepared and placed in one of said cubbies, your name will light up, you will tap twice, open the door, and pick up your customized quinoa bowl. You have not talked to or seen one employee, though there are people in the back preparing the food.

And even more impressive, or frightening, depending on your point of view, the next time you stop by for lunch, the computer system remembers you and will display your previous orders as well as suggest particular combinations based on your preferences. Wow. I’m suddenly taken back to the Jetsons.

On a side note: Eatsa was recently sued by disability rights advocates for not making their high-tech restaurant accessible to those who are blind. 

  • Zume Pizza first took to the streets in 2016, cooks their pizza in-route in customized made trucks that contain several pizza ovens, and has no brick-and-mortar location. It does, however, have a robot named Doughbot which presses their pizza dough into perfectly round circles at just the right height and in just nine seconds. And it’s not alone. Other machines spread the sauce and remove the pizzas from the ovens. What has all this automation done for them? It’s given them the ability to deliver piping-hot pizzas made from locally-sourced ingredients in under 20 minutes, cut their cost, and increased their productivity.
  • Domino’s has been in the game for some time with the first location making its appearance in 1960. And it is still going strong. In fact, their stock prices have risen from $8 to $186 over the last nine years. The question begs to be asked: Why have they remained strong contenders when others in their sector have fallen by the wayside or are barely hanging on by a thread? It could be because they are one of the most tech-oriented operations. This includes an AI-based virtual assistant that allows customers to order using their voice or text. It was also the first to deliver a pizza via a drone.
  • Yelp’s Eat24 offers something quite different than the many other food delivery businesses currently vying for traffic, at least in some of the neighborhoods in San Francisco. It is here that self-driving robots are taking the place of human couriers. DoorDash is also in line to begin robot delivery in Redwood City, California.
  • Though not quite as impressive as drone and robot deliveries, Subway is attempting to make an impression in the digital and AI domain. In fact, Subway digital has been launched and created just so that a hundred plus individuals can work on Subway’s digital projects. Recently they launched a Facebook Messenger bot that lets their customers order and pay via Facebook.

 

What’s to Come?

Domino’s, once again, seems to be in the forefront of the new, and unusual, tech-additions that will change the face of delivery. Their plans are wheeled by delivery pizza robots which will make their first deliveries within a mile radius of stores in Germany and the Netherlands by the end of this year.

Momentum Machines recently secured over $18 million in venture capital. At the heart of this start-up is a robot that, according to Business Insider, “can make 400 made-to-order hamburgers in an hour.” This isn’t just an automated flipper; it can slice, grill, assemble, and bag.

Though not quite at the same line-cook level, Flippy, a robot in CaliBurgers’ Pasadena store, is cooking burgers and placing them on buns.

 

Why all the Automation?

There are several factors that are believed to be at the cornerstone of the increase in automated preparation, delivery and service in the fast food industry. One of the main considerations is the present workforce and the associated costs. In 2017, 19 states and various cities increased their minimum wage with a few topping out at $15 per hour, making human labor much more costly. Already tight margins can mean this increase can topple those restaurants that are barely surviving. Robots can often pay for themselves in two years by increased and tireless productivity.

While self-ordering kiosks and apps that allow a customer to order and pay before they arrive at the restaurant are definitely here to stay and growing, it appears that AI may just begin taking over more complex tasks than just ordering. Serving, delivery, and cooking are hitting mainstream and it will probably be not too many years into the future, for better or worse, when walking into a restaurant without employees will seem an everyday occurrence.

 

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