Flippy can make burgers.
Flippy can make chicken nuggets.
Flippy can make fries.
In fact Flippy, the Miso Robotics kitchen robot that White Castle signed a contract to test just recently, can cook 17 different types of foods (and counting) with higher-end capabilities for higher-class foods like steak coming soon. Flippy also integrates into a restaurant’s point-of-sale system, starts making food as soon as a customer orders it, and never takes breaks or gets tired.
But the real revolution for kitchen robotics is about five years out.
“Starting in the next two years, you’re going to see an explosion of really high quality, small footprint delivery kiosks — think high quality vending machines, kind of express menus,” Miso Robotics co-founder Buck Jordan told me recently on the TechFirst podcast. “But then I think around year five or seven, you’re going to start seeing a lot of … all new-build kitchens being completely reinvented, fully autonomous, no humans in the back of house, 25% the square footage, probably fits in a shipping container, completely changing the entire industry and potentially disrupting the franchise model.”
It’s tough to be in the restaurant business in 2020.
As of December, 110,000 restaurants have shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic: 17% of all U.S. restaurants. Even before then, keeping staff was a core challenge, especially in fast food or the quick service sector where you see turnover on the order of 150% each year, Jordan says. Locations that have managed to remain open have new regulations around dining in and physical distancing both in the kitchen and out front, plus they’re dealing with new costs while revenue is also down.
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Jordan thinks robots are part of the solution.
And he thinks we can do that without job loss (at least for now).
“White Castle, for example, is committed to not let anybody go as a result of adding Flippy into the kitchens,” Jordan says. “We’re hearing from workers on the ground where we’ve been piloting that having Flippy in the kitchen allows them to focus on other tasks like bagging up orders and providing memorable moments to consumers.”
Listen to the interview behind this story on TechFirst:
This is particularly important during Covid: chefs simply cannot maintain six feet of distance in most restaurant kitchens, so having a robot in to take care of frying and broiling and a number of other tasks frees up a station.
While Flippy costs about $30,000 up front or can be leased for about $2,000/month, that can be prohibitive. So Miso Robotics is working hard to get the cost down, Jordan says, so that they can simply provide it at no cost and just charge a monthly fee. Essentially, subscription hardware, just like subscription software.
It’s hard to imagine that a cloud kitchen or ghost kitchen scenario five to seven years in the future, however, with a fully automated kitchen, would not cause job losses. In fact, one restaurant consulting firm estimates that robots could potentially fill 80% of the positions in the industry.
That includes serving, cooking, food preparation.
Interestingly, top executives and managers joined front-counter sales among the few positions not at risk, according to the consultants.
That is not, however, Jordan’s vision. Jordan thinks that restaurant workers will upskill and be available for higher-level jobs requiring more human touch and more human skill.
“If you take a quick-serve restaurant job, you’re not necessarily being trained for a whole lot of other tasks beyond that,” he says. “Once the nature of kitchen changes, and when a restaurant worker is no longer just operating a fryer or a grill, but he’s operating an iPad and working with advanced robotics, you know, I believe that that person is now being trained for something else.”
Interestingly, robots could also improve the quality of our food.
One way that happens is that if Flippy gets orders for burgers and fries, but knows that the burger wait is ten minutes, it won’t drop the fries right away and make them sit and get cold. Rather, it’ll optimize cooking each component of a customer’s order to sync up the finish time and deliver a better product: all fresh and all hot.
That’s especially important during Covid as we’re getting more take-out and delivery, and the food is going to sit for five or ten minutes in a car before someone actually opens it up and eats it.
Ultimately, the future is a fully automated kitchen in homes, which Jordan forecasts to be about ten years out at a cost of about $100,000. But you can already see the potential today.
“The future’s already here,” he says. “We have standalone machines that can cook a pizza in less than three minutes from scratch. We have automated Boba tea bars hitting the scene. And all these things just make it easier for customers to get low-touch food options faster and close to home.”
For about $100,000 in about ten years, Jordan says the fully automated chef that knows what ingredients you have and cooks your food to order will be available, built into new homes, or retrofitted into old ones.
Which means a more affordable solution might be 15 years out.
The result might be worth waiting for, however.
“I can get pretty passionate about providing really high quality food affordably to large swaths of the population,” Jordan says. “And as companies like Miso come out, that is going to be the outcome.”