Restaurant Operators ‘Cautiously’ Explore AI and Robotics

Robots are making their way into the kitchens of restaurants and QSRs. In July, White Castle announced that it was trying a pilot program with Miso Robotics – creators of the first autonomous grilling and frying kitchen assistant, called Flippy. (Flippy ROAR White Castle Miso Robotics)

Bars and restaurants could soon be replacing staff or certain key roles with a mechanical counterpart, according to a new study from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.

In her report,
How to Build a Better Robot for Quick Service Restaurants – recently published in the Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Research – Dina Marie Zemke, an associate professor of residential property management in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University, found that the overwhelming majority of respondents believe that there is no stopping the robotic transformation of the food service industry. In fact, Zemke said that robotic technology designed to perform specific physical tasks has recently emerged as an option for hospitality businesses due to decreasing robotic equipment costs.

Zemke explained that the majority of robots used in the hospitality industry are technologies initially developed for other industries – such as automobile and food manufacturing – which have been modified from their original functions to perform their tasks in a hospitality or restaurant setting. Examples include the work performed by robotic vacuums, information displays and robotic manufacturing assembly arms, which now put together pizzas and cocktails.

However, the study found that robots are still a novelty for most people. “At this point, a lot of people have a positive impression of robotic technology that entices guests to visit the location at least once, although they were unsure whether the robotics would sufficiently overcome average food or service to entice them to return to the restaurant a second time,” said Zemke. “This is consistent with past examples of restaurant concepts that provided a highly unique experience but suffered from the reputation that the guest would visit once because of the ‘experience’ but would not return because the food was too expensive and/or the food quality or service provided a poor value overall.”

Despite the impending changes with robotics and the hospitality industry, the study also discovered that respondents have major concerns regarding the societal impact of robotics entering the realm of restaurant operations, including the cleanliness and food safety of robot technology, and communication quality – especially voice recognition – from both native and nonnative English speakers.

In the end, Zemke said that she believes that rising labor costs will force restaurant owners to turn to robotics. “The genesis of this study was the ‘Fight for $15’ movement, which focused heavily on hourly service jobs, such as those in franchised quick service restaurants,” she said. “Many restaurant operators cautiously suggested that they may explore robotics as an alternative to absorbing these increased labor costs.”

Globally, the food robotics market size is anticipated to reach US3.35 billion by 2025, expanding at a CAGR of 13.1 percent, according to a new report by
Grand View Research, Inc. The growing demand for automation, increasing food safety regulations, and high labor costs are expected to drive the market.

Restaurant Robots in Action

Sea Palace – an iconic establishment in Amsterdam – is just one example of a restaurant that’s turned to robotics during the COVID-19 pandemic, as a way to help with labor costs. The restaurant is a four-story, extravagant boat – in the Chinese imperial style – that sits on the Amsterdam River. The popular attraction boasts space for more than 800 restaurant guests, offers more than 500 Cantonese dishes, and is known for being the leading Chinese restaurant in The Netherlands. Major diplomatic events between The Netherlands and China take place at the restaurant, and the Chinese embassy to The Netherlands holds grand receptions there, as well.

Robot Server Restaurant
Sea Palace showcases its food delivery robots by Pudu Robotics. Photo: Courtesy of Sea Palace / Pudu Robotics. 

However, like all businesses, Sea Palace was hit hard by the pandemic, after thriving for nearly four decades. As required by the government, the restaurant came to a sudden halt for two-and-a-half months from mid-March to early June.

Sea Palace then re-opened in June, but it faced economic challenges and rigorous safety requirements with social distancing and reduced capacity. Thus, the restaurant looked for innovative ways to increase revenues while controlling costs, and it turned to food delivery robots by Pudu Robotics. Called PuduBots, the high-tech robots offer contactless delivery and can also assist with the bussing of tables. In addition to supporting restaurants, the bots can be used in bars, hotels and other business settings.

Considered a benchmark company in the field of delivery robots, Pudu Robotics was established in 2016 and the company has maintained rapid growth and financial support, and its robots have been sold to restaurants and businesses in more than 20 countries and regions around the world.

"Robots are a new form of labor and are also the focus of our continued attention,” said Colin Guo, partner of Sequoia Capital China – the lead investor in the latest round of funding for Pudu Robotics. “Pudu has deep accumulation in the field of service robots. It started by providing delivery robots to the catering industry and has begun to expand to more diverse working scenarios. The demand of customers for this type of new labor is constantly growing, and we believe that service robots will soon become standard configuration in many industries."

Sea Palace noted that its PuduBots are currently working out well, and that the advanced machines have a superb ability to detect obstacles – such as customers walking by, chairs, tables and hanging objects – as they move about the restaurant.

At the moment, Sea Palace has several PuduBots, which all service the dining area on the second floor of the boat restaurant. The owner said they made the decision to use the robots because labor costs in the Netherlands are high, they reduce people-to-people contact, and the investment on PuduBots can be recovered within one year.

AI and Robotics in the Kitchen
Robots are also making their way into the kitchens of restaurants and QSRs. In July,
White Castle announced that it was trying a pilot program with Miso Robotics – creators of the first autonomous grilling and frying kitchen assistant, called Flippy – to accelerate the adoption of artificial intelligence and robotics in the restaurant industry.

As part of the deployment, White Castle is bringing the new version of Flippy, Robot-on-a-Rail (ROAR), into kitchens for testing and future integration. The deployment will put autonomous frying to work for enhanced production speeds, improved labor allocation and an added layer of health and safety in the cooking process.

Lisa Ingram, 4th generation family leader and CEO of White Castle, said, "Miso Robotics understood where we could improve and stay true to White Castle's brand of taste, innovation and best-in-class dining. A great customer and employee experience is in our DNA, and we are thrilled to bring the future into our kitchen with solutions that will transform the industry and make the White Castle experience all that it can be for generations to come."

According to Miso Robotics, robotics automation and artificial intelligence can help restaurants build a future-focused kitchen that reassures customers of the best standards in food preparation.

"Miso Robotics couldn't be more excited to bring Flippy ROAR into White Castle," said Buck Jordan, CEO and co-founder of Miso Robotics. "Artificial intelligence and robotics brings a very real opportunity to continuously enhance the cooking process and optimize taste for restaurants.”

White Castle's decision to pilot Flippy in the kitchen creates an avenue for reduced human contact with food during the cooking process – reducing potential for transmission of food pathogens. The implementation also brings intelligence to cooking, tapping into sensors, intelligent monitoring and anticipated kitchen needs to keep food temperatures consistent, that ensure optimal quality and a perfect bite for customers. With Flippy in the kitchen automating repetitive, time consuming and dangerous tasks like frying, team members can also be redeployed to more customer-experience driven tasks.