Could ghost kitchens become more the rule than the exception in the wake of COVID-19? It’s difficult to argue with the numbers. Automated kitchen technology systems are demonstrating how kitchens can churn out dozens of dishes per hour with minimal assistance from staff. (Kitchen Robotics’ newly released Beastro robotic kitchen, which claims to be the “world’s first robotic dark kitchen,” was designed to handle the planning, preparation and delivery of up to 45 dishes per hour – and only requires assistance in the plating of dishes and the refilling of feeders, the company says.) At a time when it’s difficult to not only find labor but also to quickly shift gears and guarantee safety if and when an employee becomes sick, the automation of kitchen tasks could be worth the investment – or at least some exploration. (In case you missed it, U.S. Foods launched a ghost kitchens program recently to help operators create new revenue streams.)
New research from the CDC reported that adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were about twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant than those who tested negative. While it’s obviously not welcome news for operators eager to reopen indoor dining rooms, perhaps it will provide some operators with the justification they are looking for to adopt more technology for the long term. This report from The Spoon predicts that the time may have come for restaurants to look beyond some of the piecemeal solutions they have been implementing to provide a contactless experience for customers – and adopt more robots to facilitate such tasks as meal preparation, food running and dishwashing. As winter arrives and operators anticipate challenges around COVID and labor, such an approach may just offer a long-term safety net.
The pandemic has forced restaurant operators to consider new revenue streams. Robots may help open some doors. Salad bars and buffets may not be operating as they were, for example, but could a robot offer a similar product – and operate in a context removed from a sit-down restaurant? Candace MacDonald, cofounder and managing director of hospitality consultancy Carbonate, told Modern Restaurant Management that companies like Salad Station are using robotic vending to serve up salads in new locations – and at the same time, are likely reaching new customers. Could you envision offering menu items through robotic vending via a grocery store or hospital cafeteria?
As restaurants have taken steps to keep business running, operators have embraced radical reinvention: transitioning from fine-dining establishments to takeout providers, from selling deli sandwiches to groceries. How can you fortify your restaurant for the future? Now is the time for considering ideas that may have seemed crazy just last year. The restaurant industry advisory Aaron Allen & Associates found that 82 percent of restaurant positions today could potentially be automated. Though they stressed they aren’t suggesting the human element of restaurants be removed, their findings do provide reason for operators to assess how technology brings efficiencies to not only restaurant categories but to other industries – and anticipate what they may have to do in the future to compete.
The restaurant industry is one of extreme ups and downs – in labor expenditure and availability, sales and costs. But what if automation could bring predictability to your operation by supporting staff in certain areas or ensuring safety during the pandemic? Expect to see more of it in both the back and front of the house as operators manage changes in service right now. While automation may still seem futuristic in restaurants, it had been on the rise even well before the pandemic: Oxford University research predicted that 90 percent of quick-service restaurants would become fully automated within the next decade or two. There are ample applications beyond quick service too: Restaurants are now using it to reinvent the traditional buffet for the current environment. Of course, the costs of conversion aren’t insignificant but should factor into your longterm recovery strategy as you also consider the costs required to recruit, pay, insure and train employees on an ongoing basis. Once the technology and insurability of self-driving cars and delivery drones solidifies, automated delivery is likely to become more commonplace for restaurants too. How can tech automation – whether through emerging robotic innovation or even automated tools currently available to you on your POS or mobile app – improve your balance sheet?
Just a few months ago, the use of robots and other technology to automate food preparation and service tasks may have seemed more quirky than practical for much of the restaurant industry. Fast forward to now, and the ability to automate various foodservice tasks looks like a clear advantage: It could help operators preserve social distancing requirements in the kitchen, better protect employee and customer health, and manage labor challenges at a time when infections could strain business. While the cost of such tech has been a barrier to entry in the past, look for that to change as restaurant tech companies take steps to kick-start their own businesses. A report from the San Francisco Chronicle details how the preparation of products ranging from smoothies to salads could change as automation is adopted more widely.
A robot that can flip burgers behind the scenes is one thing. But somehow, a robot that can take on a wide range of front-of-house roles normally held by humans still feels a little space-age. However, a voice-activated, cloud-enabled service robot called the Sanbot Elf Robot seems to be making that possible. Canada-based Autonetics Universe recently acquired the rights to distribute the robot, which Nation’s Restaurant News reports can be programmed to take on such roles as greeting guests, taking orders, and sharing promotions, as well as serving as food runner, cashier and even security guard. The service robot is already used widely in Canada and Japan — the company says there are currently 100,000 in use — and it’s not difficult to see how such technology may appeal to U.S. operators struggling to manage labor costs. (Well, aside from the $13,000 price tag.) McDonald’s is currently testing robotic technology used for frying, taking drive-thru orders and cooking chicken and fish, so front-of-house applications may not be far behind for major brands.
If you’re currently adjusting your approach to managing labor challenges, repetitive kitchen tasks or the overall experience you provide guests, a number of tech companies are working on solutions to help. At the recent food robotics summit ArticulATE, leaders of these companies sounded off on what’s in the pipeline, and as SmartBrief reports, a key theme of discussion was finding ways for technology to blend seamlessly with human employees and guests, while freeing up employees for more creative tasks. The formula isn’t the same for every restaurant. While there is technology available that can automate burger flipping and fryer operation (Miso Robotics), baking bread (Wilkinson Baking Company, among others), serving guests (Bear Robotics) and delivering food, finding the right kind of automation for your business is about understanding what is best for developing your employees and serving guests. As the CEO of Creator, the restaurant in San Francisco that uses robots to make the perfect burger but has not automated the taking of orders, said: “Our goal is not to be the world’s most automated restaurant, our goal is not to have as few people as possible -- the goal is to have the best experience possible.”