Whether it is steak-flipping robots or bartending robots, the implementation of food service robots in restaurants has been on the rise. And while the development of robotics technologies is a key factor to this broad implementation, the effects of inflation and increasing labor costs have also significantly contributed to this movement. A full slate of restaurant robotics was on display at this year’s National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago.
Regardless of the root cause of this transition, the adoption of restaurant robotics is set to change the face of the foodservice industry.
Read on to discover more about this growing trend, its many applications, and how it will dictate the future of the industry.
Restaurant Robotics: What’s the Trend?
Restaurant robotics involves automating tasks traditionally carried out by restaurant staff. These tasks can be quite varied, and include activities carried out at the back-end and front-end of a restaurant. Automated activities are often too repetitive or unsafe for human staff, , and the upside is that those robots can perform said tasks more quickly, efficiently, and accurately.
While some argue that the change can have a negative impact on the human workforce, a deeper look into the phenomenon reveals that restaurant robotics is here to stay – and can in fact have a positive overall impact when combined with human labor.
What follows are some of the reasons why the industry is being pushed towards this change.
Restaurant Robotics and the Changing Landscape of the Food Service Industry
While the COVID-19 pandemic marked a significant factor in this widespread transition to automation, the restaurant and food service industry had been struggling long before the pandemic’s onset.
The main reasons for restaurant robotics, are dwindling consumer spending and high employee turnover in the food service and restaurant sector.
More consumers are choosing to cut back on food spending due to inflated prices. Restaurant owners are often in need of transferring these high prices onto consumers due to rising food and labor inflation. But some expenses are still absorbed by the restaurants, which has led to dramatically decreasing profit margins.
Amidst all of this, a staffing crisis resulting from the great resignation of 2021 has not helped. Further, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the quit rate among hospitality workers had reached 6.6% per month in 2021, more than double the national average. Additionally, full-service restaurants are operating with 6.2% fewer kitchen employees than they were in 2019. As many as 50% of U.S. restaurant operators plan to deploy automation technology in the next 2–3 years to help fill labor gaps.
These factors have opened up the scope for restaurant robotics and automation to emerge.
How Much Labor Cost Can Restaurant Robotics Save?
Simplifying complicated tasks, undertaking high-risk activities, and filling staffing gaps—food service robots can help restaurants in many ways. The biggest difference, however, is monetary.
While the cost of purchasing automation technologies and installing them is high, it has been proven to be cost-effective in the long run. Not only do robots provide a lot more consistency and increase productivity, but they also reduce labor costs. In restaurants, average labor costs make up around 30% to 35% of revenue, and a significant reduction on this end provides quite a relief to restaurateurs.
Despite this undeniable benefit, the growth of restaurant robotics has lagged behind other industries in the global robotics market share (by application).
Still, leading robotics companies continue to make it easier for restaurant owners to offload tasks to food service robots. Increasingly, restaurateurs are also learning the benefits of such applications in real-time.
Companies Leading the Restaurant Automation Race
Here are a few leading restaurant robotics companies that are starting to emerge across the food service industry landscape.
- Miso Robotics
Miso Robotics provides Robots-as-a-Service and intelligent automation solutions catered toward restaurants. Their products include a range of AI-powered sensor systems and food service robots.
The company’s current focus has been on re-introducing their iconic product Flippy’s new and improved version, the Flippy 2. It is an automated robot that can fry high volumes of food with maximum precision.
Another flagship technology from Miso Robotics that has been gaining a ton of attention is the CookRight Coffee system. It is designed to monitor the coffee brewing process and provide key insights on volume, temperature, and time metrics. This aims to help restaurants improve the efficiency of their coffee brewing programs and maximize productivity.
Miso Robotics has partnered with Americana Restaurants to expand its reach internationally. This partnership is expected to result in the deployment of their scaled robotics systems all over the world.
- Bear Robotics
Bear Robotics, a pioneer in automated robot waiters, helps restaurant staff leave the “running to the robots” with automated, robot waiters. From food running, to drink serving to table bussing, this technology works alongside food service staff, freeing them up to focus on elevating guest experience and other more important tasks. Foodservice chains like Chili’s, and hospitality chains like the Marriott have been integrating mobile waiters to help improve efficiency.
- Nala Robotics
Nala Robotics is an AI technology company known for its groundbreaking robotics products catering to the food service industry.
The first such product is Nala Chef 1.1, an AI and ML-powered multi-cuisine chef. The product is a customizable robot that allows users to deliver an infinite number of precision-cooked recipes.
The second product from Nala Robotics is Pizzaiola 1.0, a fully robotic pizza maker that can create fully customized dishes in various styles. The modular system can accommodate various pizza ovens as well as other prep stations for pasta, burgers, salads, and more.
- Makr Shakr
Makr Shakr is the pioneer in bartending robots and robotic bar solutions. Their robotic bartenders can assemble and serve various cocktail recipes to customers.
With the capacity to serve 120 drinks per hour, their technology has been adopted in bars worldwide. Their main partner is Royal Caribbean Cruises, which has deployed the Makr Shakr on nine of their iconic vessels.
Makr Shakr also has an exciting lineup of products, including mobile and fixed bar units that will take the Makr Shakr experience to businesses worldwide.
A Wavemaker Labs company, Piestro has developed an automatic robotic pizza shop that can assemble an artisanal pizza within three minutes.
They strive to deliver a robotics solution to help restauranteurs reduce the labor costs and retail footprint behind making pizza. With their technology, pizzerias can function more sustainably and serve quality pizza at a fraction of the cost.
Piestro has partnered with Canada’s Carbone Restaurant Group to expand its franchise’s footprint. They aim to market 500 franchise units across Canada.
Cecilia.ai is a robotics startup that created the world’s first interactive bartender for bars and events. Age-verification solutions, voice recognition, precise cocktail mixing—Cecilia.ai is designed to replace human bartenders entirely.
Their products are used by brands like Microsoft, Cisco, Florida International University, and more.
- Picnic Works
Picnic Works is a Seattle-based company working towards transforming the food service industry through automation.
Their flagship product, the Picnic Pizza Station, is an automated pizza assembly system made to help pizzeria owners save time, money, and labor. The system reduces food waste and can deliver 100 pizzas in an hour.
- Ally Robotics
Ally Robotics is an up-and-coming startup introducing smart, simple, and affordable robotic arms targeted at the restaurant industry.
Ally Robotics has partnered with Miso Robotics to supply its robotics arm products for their Flippy line. They aim to improve the efficiency of Flippy’s robotic arms and reduce their manufacturing cost.
Ally Robotics also launched an $8.5 million seed campaign in 2022 to raise funds for its line of robotic arms for use in lower-income industries that do not have the scope for adapting such technologies.
- Nuro Robotics
American robotics company Nuro develops zero-occupant autonomous delivery vehicles. Its on-road fleet consists of three autonomous vehicles and is in its third generation of lineups.
Spyce, bought by Sweetgreen in 2021, was a Boston restaurant company with an automated kitchen setup known for preparing meals in three minutes or less.
Kiwibot is another robotics company working on automating last-mile delivery solutions. Their adorable lineup includes AI-powered all-electric delivery robots that are sustainable and convenient. Foodservice giant, Sodexo, has recently introduced these to great fanfare, at University and College campuses across the U.S.
- Richtech Robotics
For over 20 years, Richtech Robotics has been developing robotic workers to help businesses generate profits through automation. Their flagship product, the Matradee, is a high-capacity server robot developed for standard restaurant layouts.
Their product lineup now includes worker robots, server robots, cleaning robots, hotel delivery, and surface disinfection robots.
Blendid is an automated food platform that utilizes AI-based robotics and new engineering to develop autonomous robotic kiosks.
Their flagship product Jamba is one such kiosk that makes fresh, on-the-go smoothies, bowls, juices, and more.
- Pudu Robotics
Pudu Robotics is an international tech company that develops smart delivery robots for various commercial applications. Their fleet of robots is built to fulfill commercial deliveries, receptions, disinfection, and cleaning services.
- Hyper Robotics
Hyper Robotics is a restaurant robotics company developing fully-automated robotic fast food stores in box units. Their ghost kitchen products cater to fast-food chains looking for faster expansion in the market.
- Serve Robotics
Another well-known name in the self-driving robotics category is Serve Robotics. The San Francisco-based company aims to develop sustainable zero-emission self-driving delivery robots for commercial use.
Serve Robotics is also the first company to launch its level-4 autonomous self-driving robots commercially.
- Pazzi Robotics
Pazzi Robotics is working towards building autonomous restaurants to transform the fast food industry. Their unique zero-assistance framework uses cloud-connected software and a machine learning platform along with robots and robotic modules.
They’ve piloted their concept restaurant in two locations in Paris and Europe and have plans to roll out more in the upcoming years.
- Dexai Robotics
Dexai Robotics is a Boston-based automation company working to change the shape of the food industry by automating tasks in commercial kitchens.
Their flagship robot Alfred, the 2020 Red Dot Design Award winner, is a sous chef robot capable of automating most back-end restaurant activities. The robot is controlled by a human via a tablet that allows recipe updates and performance analysis.
XRobotics is another addition to the affordable pizza-making robot developer list. Their pizza-making robot automates 70% of pizza recipes using three ingredients. It can deliver more than 100 pizzas per hour.
- Starship Technologies
Starship Technologies develops autonomous delivery vehicles that can distribute goods locally while reducing time, costs, and labor.
They are currently partnered with worldwide brands like Just Eat, Swiss Post, Metro Group, Hermes, and Wolt. They also carry out deliveries in college campuses in the United States for brands such as Starbucks, Panera Bread, Auntie Anne’s, Baja Fresh, and more.
Applications of Restaurant Robotics and Automation
What products and tasks get adopted faster and on a large scale depends on many factors. Two key elements are the price and functions the robot can carry out.
Here are some robotic solutions already being piloted or used in the food service industry:
- White Castle
White Castle, an American hamburger restaurant chain, has integrated Miso Robotics’ Flippy at one-third of their locations to flip burgers.
Fast casual restaurant chain Chipotle is another that has teamed up with Miso Robotics. It aims to develop robotics solutions that can deep fry and season chips.
Chilli’s Grill & Bar partnered with leading robotics company Bear Robotics to develop the specialized robotics solution Rita the Robot. They piloted the first robot in 2020 and went on to employ it at more than 50 locations.
Rita the Robot is part of the team at Chilli’s and helps out with guest seating, delivering food, and singing happy birthday.
Chili’s Grill & Bar is also collaborating with Serve Robotics to automate its food delivery service using Serve’s sidewalk robots.
The pizza giant Domino’s teamed up with Nuro to launch autonomous pizza delivery in Houston in 2021.
- 800 Degrees
800 Degrees has launched the 800 Go program in partnership with robotics company Piestro to develop 3,600 pizza vending machines in the next 4 to 5 years.
Food services and facilities management giant Sodexo has teamed up with Kiwibot to bring its robotic delivery solutions to college campuses in the United States. They aim to deploy 1200 of Kiwibot’s flagship products across 50 locations in the country.
Sodexo has also partnered with Blendid to deploy their Jamba Smoothie Robot at Georgia College. This Fall and Winter semesters, Sodexo is executive a commercial reveal with SavorEat, at University of Denver, and University of Colorado at Denver campuses, to elevate the student fining experience, with the SavorEat Smart Robot Chef food-tech platform.
- Buffalo Wild Wings
Sports bar and casual dining franchise Buffalo Wild Wings has partnered with Miso Robotics to create a new edition of Flippy, called Wingy, that will specialize in cooking buffalo wings.
- Royal Caribbean Cruises
Royal Caribbean Cruises is one of the biggest brands that has employed an automated Bionic Bar on their cruise ships, in partnership with Makr Shakr.
- Kitchen United
Ghost kitchen network Kitchen United piloted Kiwibot to test its capabilities in delivering restaurant orders.
- Panera Bread
A bakery-cafe style restaurant chain, Panera Bread, has partnered with Miso Robotics to introduce automated brewing systems at its U.S. locations.
- Speedy Eats
Speedy Eats, a US-based drive-through startup, has partnered with Picnic Works to integrate its flagship product, Picnic Pizza Station, at its locations. The project is estimated at $800 million and will involve installing 5,000 systems across the country.
- Sugar Mediterranean Bistro
Sugar Mediterranean Bistro is a Stockton restaurant that has partnered with Richtech Robotics to deploy server robots amidst labor shortages.
- Capprioti’s Sandwich Shop
Capprioti’s Sandwich Shop is piloting Piestro Pod at its Las Vegas flagship location. It is expected to lead to the deployment of 100 such Piestro Pods at more of Capriotti’s locations.
- Wings and Rings
Wings and Rings, a club-level sports restaurant chain, partnered with Miso Robotics to pilot test the new Flippy 2.
- TrueBird Coffee Co.
TrueBird is a startup introducing fully-automated micro-cafes serving exceptional and affordable coffee made by experts. They have completed prototype testing at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and are launching at multiple locations across NYC.
- Costco Pizza
Costco has been in the news for its delicious pizza. The reason behind it is their automation solutions that use a robot to employ a precise sauce-application method.
PizzaHQ is automating its pizza-making process by deploying pizza makers and automated pizza robots in its stores.
- Serve Robotics
Although a robotics company itself, Serve has partnered with another robotics company Piestro to deliver a fully-automated pizza making and delivery experience.
- The Mini Bakery
Wilkinson Baking Company has created a fully-automated bakery to provide customers with freshly-made bread delivered within minutes of baking.
- Big Bang Pizza
Big Bang Pizza, a Brookhaven-based restaurant, operates three robots at its location. Servers named Pepper, Amy, and Lola carry out the functions of Robo-hostesses, like greeting guests, making recommendations, and serving.
Benefits of Restaurant Automation
With restaurant robotics, there is great potential to reduce waste, improve efficiency, and increase profits for the food service industry.
The benefits of food service robots include:
- Reduces labor requirement
- Reduces operating costs
- Reduces wait time for customers
- Streamlines check-in and check-out times
- Provides an engaging and intuitive experience for diners
- Provides consumers easy access to menus
- Allows consumers to order at their own pace
- Carry out multiple tasks with accuracy and speed
- Longer working hours than humans
- Same operating costs for many years
- No limit on culinary skills and menu offerings
- Ability to replicate dishes without error
- Automates the food or beverage-making process
- Saves money and human resources
- Reduces food waste
- Can work 24/7 without breaks
- Delivers consistent quality for years
- Better throughput
- Efficient cleaning processes
- Improves hygiene of production lines and helps avoid food safety breaches
- Generate analytics for better efficiency and food quality
- Frees humans from mundane and repetitive tasks
- Allows customers to engage with their friends and family
- Provides a welcoming atmosphere to every customer, every time
- And many more.
Challenges of Restaurant Robotics and Automation
Despite the benefits, robots are yet to solve some problems regarding cost-efficiency and the human equation, such as:
Cost and Implementation
Even with the efforts to reduce the costs of robotics products, they remain out of budget for small boutique restaurants.
The typical price for simple products ranges between $1,500 and $3,000, often higher. There are also implementation costs for such devices that can reach $20,000 to $30,000. SoFi Statdium in San Francisco recently announced that fans will soon be able to enjoy ‘robot-made’ sushi (average cost of machine $5,000-$20,0000) made by AUTEC.
Although restaurant robotics are fully or partially automated, they still require some degree of human supervision.
Machine learning has significantly advanced, but robots aren’t yet capable of adapting to changing situations or reading human emotions. These are key factors that affect the overall experience at restaurants.
Humans still must supervise these machines to ensure that proper service is being delivered to customers.
Given strong resistance from customers and worker unions alike, it arguably could take some time before restaurateurs can successfully reap the full benefits of automation.
While employees may simply protest due to the loss of jobs, customers are a different case. The loss of human touch, laying off workers, or unpleasant experiences with AI-powered devices can result in resistance toward restaurant robotics. All of these reasonable concerns must be addressed by restaurant owners.
The best scenario is to spot the biggest pressure points and integrate automated solutions that will not affect, rather help to enhance customer satisfaction and guest loyalty.
Too Many Tasks
Deploying robots to take over tasks in commercial restaurants is only practical if the machines can reduce labor costs and work more quickly. If the robots’ implementation does not make a difference to revenue earnings, they might not be a wise decision for restaurateurs.
Same Tasting Dishes
Robots can replicate certain actions with precision, which might get boring for customers after a while. Unfortunately, teaching robots to learn new recipes is an incredibly complex task that not all restaurant owners—or even machines—will be up for.
Most restaurant robotics rely on machine learning to learn how to cook. This means restaurant owners must feed robots data they can learn to replicate. Without this routine, the robot will keep cooking the same meal forever. There is value in consistency, but such a static menu may turn away loyal customers.
As the food industry moves forward with automation, the real challenge for restauranteurs will be balancing their automated and human teams. This complex balancing act will determine how well the restaurant fares.
The Future of Restaurant Robotics and Automation
Food service robots are making waves in the industry, and by all accounts, it seems that these machines are truly the future. At present, the aim of implementing such technologies in the food service industry is focused on lowering costs and increasing efficiency.
It’s likely easier for larger enterprises and international chains to deploy these expensive restaurant robotics solutions. For now, small restaurants cannot keep pace. Affordable automation will undoubtedly be essential in widespread implementation to mitigate the effects of industry-wide labor shortages and inflation.