Advanced robotics may ease restaurant labor shortages

By Russ Banham

As restaurants revive, new automated kitchen technologies promise more cost-effective operations and a solution to the ongoing labor shortage.

According to statistics compiled by the National Restaurant Association, the restaurant industry employed an estimated 14.5 million people at the end of 2021—1 million less than pre-pandemic levels. However, half of the restaurant operators reported that recruiting and retaining employees is a top challenge in 2022. To give restaurants an edge in the years ahead, technology entrepreneurs have designed and developed automated kitchens that decrease food waste, time-consuming tasks and labor needs , and increase food freshness and the consistency of menu items.

A “ghost kitchen” makeline. Photo courtesy of Hyphen.

Stephen Klein, co-founder and CEO of Hyphen, piloted a version of his automated kitchen in a food truck parked off the Venice Beach boardwalk in Los Angeles in early 2019. Orchestrated by more than 100 different sensors, a trio of robots inside the food truck concocted an assortment of fresh and organic smoothies. Customers ordered and paid in advance on a GPS-enabled smartphone app, which alerted the robots to instantly whip up the beverage as they approached within 300 feet of the food truck. The successful experiment, months before the pandemic, prompted Klein to automate an entire restaurant kitchen operation, “from prep to pick-up,” he says.

“The food truck did what we had hoped, bringing in heavy foot traffic until the pandemic eventually took a toll on business,” says Klein. “With everyone locked in place, the economy in collapse, staff leaving for health reasons and restaurants shutting down, we decided the timing was right to leverage the technological infrastructure of the food truck and transform it into an automated makeline for a restaurant kitchen capable of assembling more than 350 meals per hour.”

A “makeline” is kitchen jargon for the prep line where people assemble a bowl of food, such as those prepared by fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panda Express. Automated makelines targeting this restaurant segment are touted for assembling food quickly, consistently and safely.

Hyphen is not alone in this quest, with other startups like RoboEatz, Hyper-Robotics and BearRobotics also seizing the opportunity to stimulate the industry’s profits through greater efficiency and consistency.

“We take a human-centered approach to automation with every tool or product we build and designed to work with a person, not instead of them,” says Klein. “We believe critical operations are performed best when there’s a symbiosis between both technology and people.”

Making the makeline

The technology itself is a thing of beauty, if one enjoys a Rube Goldberg-like contraption with an assortment of gears, hinges, belts and other moving parts. Hyphen’s automated system, for instance, triggers a series of events that result in a finished product, in this case, lunch or dinner.

The process begins with a customer using a mobile app to place a digital order—let’s say blackened chicken with leafy greens, tomatoes, roasted corn, jalapeño, black beans, tortilla chips and cilantro lime dressing in a portion cup. Once ordered, Hyphen’s proprietary Kitchen Display System (KDS) integrates with a restaurant’s Point of Sale (POS) system to “push” the order to the automated makeline for production.

We don’t replace cooks or waiters, but we do help waiters by nudging them when the order is ready to bring to a customer or to stage for pick-up, and let the cooks know what food to prep next, as well as real -time ingredient inventory needs. Food is always fresh and is never wasted.

—Stephen Klein, co-founder and CEO, Hyphen

To the casual observer, the makeline looks like a long horizontal stainless-steel countertop. Inside is where the Rube Goldberg stuff happens. A bowl is automatically placed on a conveyor line below a series of containers (or modules, as Klein calls them) containing fresh ingredients. Leafy greens from one module drop first into the bowl, which progresses under the other modules dispensing the blackened chicken, tomatoes, roasted corn, and so on. At each step, the bowl rotates to give the dish a pleasing radial pattern. Once the bowl is prepared, the makeline pushes it to the countertop, where restaurant staff consolidates it with napkins and cutlery for pick-up.

Depending on the restaurant operation or the mix of food ingredients, the number of modules can be as few as a handful or as many as several dozen. Accordingly, the automated makeline can extend from about 20-100 feet in length.

Real-time ingredient monitor at work. Courtesy of Hyphen.

While the technology requires two people to replenish the ingredients in a line as opposed to four on a typical makeline, Klein says Hyphen’s focus is on making the assembly process more efficient. “We don’t replace cooks or waiters, but we do help waiters by nudging them when the order is ready to bring to a customer or to stage for pick-up, and let the cooks know what food to prep next, as well as real-time ingredient inventory needs. Food is always fresh and is never wasted.”

Virtually any kind of food, he noted. “The auto-tuning on the ingredient feeders allows us to dispense almost any ingredient, regardless of how it’s cut, cooked or prepped, meaning we can automatically dispense ingredients and assemble meals the way the chef intended,” he says. “We’re putting kitchen operations on autopilot.”

To design and manufacture the automated makeline, Klein tapped into an array of specialized robotics, food service and food technology skill sets, recruiting this talent from Apple, Sweetgreen, SpaceX, Tesla, Uber, Postmates and Instacart, where he worked for two years in operations and user research, prior to becoming vice president of operations at Café X Technologies, a maker of robotic coffee bars, leaving that job to launch the experimental robotic food truck that led to Hyphen’s debut.

Following successful tests of the automated makeline late last year at two undisclosed restaurant locations, Hyphen will go live in June 2022 at five locations in major restaurant markets like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. “Our target market is fast-casual restaurant brands with 10 to 150 stores,” Klein says, adding that the company recently completed a successful $24 million Series A venture capital round of financing, led by investment firm Tiger Global.

Armed with fresher foods

A different-looking but equally fascinating automated makeline is available from RoboEatz. Rather than a horizontal system, RoboEatz has developed a standalone four-walled kiosk with an articulated robotic arm handling the food prep in the middle. Using the RoboEatz app, customers personalize their menu choices, including or excluding specific ingredients based on food preferences. The app offers information on each item, such as its calories, sodium, sugars and protein intake.

Once a menu item is ordered, the company’s proprietary software directs the robotic arm to reach into one of 80 surrounding canisters containing different food ingredients like cooked cubed chicken, spinach and liquids like olive oil. The designated ingredient is dispensed into a bowl, which the arm scoops up with two grippers. The process is repeated to include the order item’s other ingredients. Once all the ingredients are collected, the robot rotates 180 degrees and puts them in an induction cooker, or if the item is a cold food like a quinoa salad, assembles the final dish.

Photo courtesy of RoboEatz.

“The software tells the robotic arm to pull the precise volume of each ingredient in a particular order from the canisters,” says tech entrepreneur Alex Barseghian, RoboEatz CEO. “A simple salad can take 30 seconds whereas a complicated dish like a stir fry, from order to in the customer’s hand, takes four minutes.”

Once customers order a menu item, the app informs them how long it will take to be ready for pick-up and provides a QR code to retrieve the item from a locker at the restaurant location. After making each dish, the automated makeline cleans up. Inside the self-contained kiosk, a series of high-pressure jets wash and sanitize the cooking drums, food canisters and robotic arm, assuring zero contamination.

“Each canister holds several gallons of food to make as many as a thousand meals per day,” Barseghian explains. “We recently incorporated AI algorithms into the system to better anticipate when a canister needs replenishment, based on real-time outputs.”

The automated makeline makes “pretty much anything that goes into a bowl,” he says, citing an array of hot and cold dishes like soups, salads, pho, ramens, yogurt with granola, pasta and stir fry dishes. “We don’t make pizza or burgers and fries, but we could,” he says.

Are robots the future?

In 2021, RoboEatz unveiled its automated makeline, branded the Ark System, at a full-service restaurant in Riga, Latvia, to obtain consumer feedback, says Barseghian, who is part-owner of one of the Baltic region’s largest restaurant chains (translated as “Walkie Talkie”).

Photo courtesy of RoboEatz.

The company’s target markets include fast-casual restaurants, corporate kitchens and hospital and university cafeterias, where the CEO says the 24/7 makeline can be a healthier alternative to vending machines and fast food. “Imagine a student or hospital worker at 2 am wanting to eat something healthy and having nothing to choose from other than a sandwich made the day before,” he says.

RoboEatz will launch the Ark System this summer in two fast-casual restaurants in Canada and has plans to launch more in the US later in the year.

Like Hyphen, RoboEatz offers restaurant owners what seem to be compelling cost savings. “The return on investment for restaurant owners has always been problematic because of the high cost of operating, but due to the two-year-long pandemic, it’s much worse. The industry confronts a protracted shortage of labor, people concerned about working or eating around other people, and higher food costs due to recurring supply bottlenecks and rising inflation.”

Seven in 10 restaurant operators surveyed say they don’t have enough staff to support their current service demand. Automated kitchens can help an industry that was hit or miss even before the pandemic.

No robot or piece of tech will ever replace the level of service and expertise that comes with decades of experience from serving guests.

—Kurt Petersen, co-president, Unite Here Local 11

The risk of robotic operations is that it will strip restaurant kitchens of their humanity, eliminating one occupation after another. “What workers need now more than ever are good jobs that do not replace them with technology [to] cut back on labor costs,” says Kurt Petersen, co-president of Unite Here Local 11, a union representing more than 32,000 workers employed in restaurants, hotels, airports and sports arenas.

“No robot or piece of tech will ever replace the level of service and expertise that comes with decades of experience from serving guests,” he adds.

His point extends across all industries undertaking digital transformations to become more efficient and cost-effective. While technology creates new jobs, it also replaces old jobs. The human impact on these workers is one that all tech entrepreneurs and the businesses they serve must consider, perhaps by investing some of the cost-savings into training for tomorrow’s jobs.

Lead photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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