Insights / 14 Restaurants Leading the Way on Automation and Robotics
14 Restaurants Leading the Way on Automation and Robotics

Everyone seems chill about machines in restaurants. Soft serve ice cream and cappuccino wouldn’t be the same without machines. Mixing, grinding, and blending by hand would take all week. Over time, these once-huge technical leaps have become part of the background hum of the kitchen.

But now, as diners and restaurant workers meet the next generations of machines in the kitchen and the dining room, we’re not sure yet how to feel. Will the robots tackle the dirty jobs for us, or everyone's jobs? Will they make guests feel as welcome as a person could? Are they an inevitability?

As the cost of labor has risen, machines have become more appealing as upfront expenses. The proof of adoption entices investors to back robotics companies. So we’re in a feedback loop at the moment, one in which robots have gone from semi-affordable acquaintances to standard colleagues. More and more, restaurant robots and automation are changing the industry in ways great and small.

We’re still in the early stages of the robot revolution, so don’t worry if you’re taking the wait-and-see approach. But some restaurants and hospitality chains are taking the plunge, and are worth watching. Look for these restaurant tech solutions in a kitchen — or at a bar, or on a ship — near you.

White Castle

You may have heard of Flippy, the robotic fry cook which took over its first grill at White Castle. Since testing the waters (or oils in this case), Flippy now works at more than 100 White Castle locations as well as at smaller chains — including CaliBurger, in Pasadena. The Miso Robotics creation essentially works as a sous chef, cooking burgers and scooping them off the grill with a spatula. This frees up the human chefs to manage more complex tasks in the kitchen, and cuts down on burn injuries for cooks. See Flippy in action here.

Chipotle

Another Miso creation, Flippy Lite, was designed “to focus on a single product that needs seasoning and finishing.” Chipotle sized up the ‘bot and decided it had found its new automated tortilla chip maker. The fast food chain insists the robot, which it calls Chippy, won’t replace staff but rather handle a single, monotonous task — that of prepping one bazillion chips a day.

Buffalo Wild Wings

A robot called Flippy Wings, known to its friends as Wingy, is a robot Miso built to “maximize the number of wings that are cooked while minimizing the time that takes and the waste it makes.” Wingy fries the wings for a certain length of time before lifting them out of the fryer and placing them in a holding area. No shocker, Buffalo Wild Wings was all over it, and is now employing Wingy at select stores.

Panera Bread

Panera Bread is the first to use Miso Robotics’ latest automated creation, the CookRight Coffee system. The coffee service station monitors coffee temperature and volume and alerts staff when a new batch is needed. It’s still in its trial run, but if it hits, it could become a widely used robotic system you might find at a coffee station near you.

Chili’s

Since 2020 Chili’s has been testing out Rita the Robot, its nickname for a Bear Robotics creation called Servi. The automated tray on wheels looks a bit like R2-D2 crossed with a bedside table — nothing to inspire your kids’ next Halloween costume. But the robot can escort guests to tables, run food, take dishes to the kitchen, and play a happy birthday tune on command — now at 50 U.S. Chili’s locations. The restaurant also has teamed with the drone company Flytrex to test out delivery in North Carolina and Texas. Baby back ribs dropping from the sky? Not a bad new normal. 

Bionic Bar on Royal Caribbean Ships

The robotic bar Makr Shakr has set sail in eight Royal Caribbean cruise ships, ready to serve you a mai tai with its hooplike chrome hands. Seeing its two sleek robotic arms pull down liquor bottles and shake ‘em up James Bond style is entertainment, sure, but the robot also handles the crowds. Once the “Bionic Bar” cards you — or scans your ID, whatever — you queue your drink in a list that displays your cocktail, your place in line, and the ingredients being slung. Don’t be squeamish! If you have a weakness for strawberry daiquiris, live your truth. Makr Shakr won’t judge. See it in action here.

Sugar Mediterranean Bistro

When this California mom and pop restaurant was short-staffed, it enlisted the help of Richtech Robotics’ Matradee. Picture a droid-esque bot that looks a little like a stepladder on a Roomba, delivering food from the line to customers in their seats. “I don’t have enough employees to be running around food and serving tables,” the owner told reporters. “The robot is running food for me and I load up the robot with dirty dishes, and it takes it right back to the dishwasher.” Like other robots on this list, Matradee doesn’t necessarily replace staff, but does at least take on the menial tasks from existing operators and employees.

Sweetgreen (maybe) 

The salad giant in 2021 made a big play for Spyce, an up-and-comer in that niche. Designed by a quartet of MIT students, Spyce was a Boston fast-casual eatery with a fully automated robotic kitchen. Humans were there mostly to oversee robots that prepared salads and noodle dishes for patrons who ordered on kiosks and watched as machines prepared, stirred, sauteed, and plated their lunch. (See it in action here.) Sweetgreen closed two Spyce locations but hints at big things in the future. The company tells us by email: “While we are still in the early stages, we believe that over time deploying Spyce technology can create consistency, order accuracy, and faster service for our guests with more efficient and engaged employees.” To be continued, hopefully.

The Mini Bakery 

Machines have been getting better at commercial bread baking for some time, but Wilkinson Baking Company revolutionized the process with its Mini Bakery. Built for everything from small bakeries to large commercial kitchens and grocery stores, its loaf makers mix, shape, proof, and bake. Customers operate it like a vending machine, using a touchscreen to customize their loaves and to order up as many as 10 per hour. The first of its kind, this automated wall of gears and conveyor belts made its debut in grocery stores but is small enough to fit restaurant kitchens or smaller shops as well. See it in action here.

Costco Pizza

It’s Costco. It’s pizza. What’s not to like? Once one machine smooshes a doughball flat and a cook places it on a pan, the raw dough moves to a “sauce robot” — basically a spigot that glops sauce onto the dough in a tight, shrinking circle. A cook then preps the dough with cheese and toppings before giving the raw pie to a robotic conveyor belt. You can watch the whole process in the store, then buy a slice for two bucks. See it in action here.

TrueBird

With vending machines and robot baristas, automated coffee crafters have been sliding quietly onto the bean scene. Take TrueBird, which has partnered with New York City coffee purveyors to serve high-quality coffees from a single, 20-square-foot kiosk. Dubbed a “fully automated micro-cafe,” the kiosk cranks out drip coffees, espressos, and lattes using machines to grind the beans, steam the milk, and pour the drink before a trio of circular magnets move the brew across a conveyor belt. It’s a far cry from hospital vending machine coffee, and given its compact design, it can set up shop in essentially any sized restaurant. See it in action here.

Domino’s

In late 2008, you could’ve bought a share of Domino’s stock for $4. In 2021, that same share topped $500. What happened? The home of the Noid leaned aggressively into tech. The chain pioneered the digital “tracker” system for its online deliveries, installed artificial intelligence to take phone orders, and launched Domino’s Anywhere, allowing customers to place orders via Amazon Alexa and Google Home. With a test program afoot in Houston, it became the ​​first American quick-service restaurant company to launch autonomous pizza delivery, via robotics company Nuro. Once you place your order on the app, Domino’s sends you an access code to enter on a golf-cart-sized pizza van when it drives up. Open sesame: The hatch lifts, and your hot pizza awaits. See it in action here.

El Pollo Loco

Chickens are flying even higher now that ​​El Pollo Loco has taken to the sky. The fast-casual chain has recently teamed up with Goairloco.com to launch drone food delivery in California. If you’re on the restaurant’s app, you can use it to receive curbside pickup. And the chicken chain has robots taking all its phone orders.

Halal Guys, Goldilocks, Crawdaddy

Turns out robots are oddly great at making drinks, and a character called DrinkBot is among the best. You use a touch screen to tell it which of its pre-set drinks to whip up (boozy or nah) and come back 20 seconds later, boom, it’s ready to go. The Botrista robot may not have the “Cocktail”-meets-”I, Robot” panache of its cousin on the cruise ship bars. But its refrigerator-with-nozzles low profile means it seems less like a novelty and more like a regular appliance getting a job done. See it in action here.

[Photo by David Levêque on Unsplash]

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