By John Russell
18 July 2020
Robots that can cook are in growing demand in the United States. The increased demand comes at a time when eateries are trying to put some distance between their workers and customers during the coronavirus health crisis.
In a few weeks, White Castle restaurants will test a robot arm that can cook french fries and other foods. The robot, called Flippy, is a product of Miso Robotics, a company based in Pasadena, California.
Kang Kuan, vice president of culinary at Chowbotics, holds a custom salad made by his company's robotic salad-making kiosk at the company's headquarters in Hayward, Calif., on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Terry Chea)
White Castle and Miso have been discussing a partnership for about a year. Those talks intensified when COVID-19 arrived, said White Castle Vice President Jamie Richardson.
Richardson said the robot can free up employees for other jobs like cleaning tables or taking food delivery orders. A touch-free environment is also increasingly important to customers, he said.
"The world has just reshaped in terms of thoughts around food safety," Richardson said.
Flippy currently costs $30,000, with an additional $1,500 required for monthly service. By the middle of next year, Miso hopes to offer the robot to restaurant operators for free but require a higher monthly fee.
Robot food service was becoming popular even before the coronavirus pandemic. Hospitals, college dining areas and other places tried to meet demand for food while keeping labor costs low. Robot chefs appeared at places like Creator, a restaurant in San Francisco.
Now, some say, robots may become necessary for the food service industry.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says the risk of getting COVID-19 from touching or eating food outside the home is low. Yet there have been several outbreaks of disease reported among restaurant employees and customers.
Vipin Jain is the co-founder and head of Blendid, a Silicon Valley startup company.
"I expect in the next two years you will see pretty significant robotic adoption in the food space because of COVID," Jain said.
Max Elder is research director of the Food Futures Lab at the California-based Institute for the Future. Elder wonders about the future of robots once the pandemic has eased.
"Food is so personal, and it needs to involve humans," he said.
Elder also worries about other problems in the food system - like outbreaks among meat industry workers or workers collecting fruit and vegetables.
He also talked about the limits of automation – the process of replacing human workers with robot workers.
"We can't automate our way out of the pandemic because the pandemic affects much more than what can be automated," Elder said.
Automated food companies say that they are not trying to replace human workers. At White Castle, Richardson says Flippy will give restaurants the ability to move workers to drive-thru lanes or redeploy them if other employees call in sick.
But, some observers say, robots can lower the demand for labor. At the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, café workers used to spend six hours per day making salads, notes Tonya Johnson, the school's director of nutrition services. But two years ago, the university added a Sally, a kind of robot that now makes around 40 salads per day. By adding Sally, the school was able to remove a job opening in its cooking staff, Johnson said.
"I think the pandemic has made us realize how much we need more equipment like Sally," Johnson said.
Miso Robotics co-founder and chief Buck Jordan said fast food restaurants are already having trouble finding workers, partly as a result of a shrinking population of young workers.
Jordan added that his company's position is that "automation is not a choice." He added, "You must automate in order to survive the future."
I'm John Russell.
customer – n. someone who purchases a product or service
table – n. a flat surface supported by three or more legs
delivery – n. the act of taking something to a person or place
fee – n. a fixed payment or charge for a service
pandemic – n. a disease that affects a large number of people over a wide area
significant – adj. large enough to be noticed or have an effect
adoption – n. the act or process of beginning to use something new or different
drive-thru lane – n. a passageway designed so that customers can be served while remaining in their vehicles
salad – n. a cold dish or meal made up of cooked or uncooked vegetables, usually with oil or other dressing