ChainMail | Fast-Food Robots

Chips from chips

ChainMail | Fast-Food Robots

Fast-food restaurants could soon look more like auto assembly lines, where humans and robots share the workspace. 

Miso Robotics, a California firm, has two new partnerships in place that highlight the potential for kitchen automation. Miso will roll out its Flippy 2 robot at 100 White Castle restaurants, where the machine will operate the fry station. Miso is also testing Chippy, a version of the system, with Chipotle, where it would be used to make tortilla chips. 

Flippy 2 uses artificial intelligence and a robotic arm to identify food, pick it up, cook it in the correct fry basket, and then place it in the hot-holding area, Miso said. From the company’s perspective, Flippy 2 — impervious to hot oil — takes over the grungiest, most dangerous job in the kitchen. White Castle says it’s excited because Flippy 2 gives workers more time to focus on customers.

What really drives automation, of course, is economics. There won’t be a completely chef-free kitchen any time soon, but Miso says a Flippy 2 system costs $3,000 or more per month. If your auto-cook works 24/7, that’s $4.16 per hour. Plus no hiring or training expenses — and never a last-minute plea for time off to attend Lollapalooza.

Labor shortages have become a major headache for the restaurant industry. Attracting and retaining workers adds to costs. The National Restaurant Association reports that seven in 10 restaurant operators don’t have enough employees to support customer demand. In a CNBC/SurveyMoney Small Business Survey, 17% of respondents in the accommodation and food services industries said a labor shortage is the biggest risk to their business. 

Cedric Pool of THAT Burger Spot told CNBC how the small Georgia chain got past a staffing problem by automating order taking via free-standing kiosks from Grubbrr. He said two kiosks in one location cost $14,400, about the same annual cost as hiring an order-taker. Average customer purchase increased from about $19 to $21 while average sales per labor hour jumped from the high $50 range to $85.

Another benefit of automated systems like Flippy 2 is they can be easily integrated into the existing kitchen. There’s no pricey redesign required. Sam Korus of ARK Investment described the idea as “backward compatibility.” In an investor note, he wrote: “This design principle should impact the cost declines and adoption rates of more broad-based robotics like autonomous vehicles.” 

How does robot food taste? Chipotle says it programmed Chippy to make tortilla chips using its standard recipe (corn masa flour, water, sunflower oil, salt, and a hint of lime juice) so they will taste the same as human-made, right down to the imperfections. 

“Everyone loves finding a chip with a little more salt or an extra hint of lime,” said Nevielle Panthaky, Chipotle’s vice president of culinary. “To ensure we didn’t lose the humanity behind our culinary experience, we trained Chippy extensively to ensure the output mirrored our current product, delivering some subtle variations in flavor that our guests expect.”

Read the complete Issue 7 of ChainMail here.

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