Still Waiting for the Robot Apocalypse

It really is a question of whether, not when

By Robert F. Moss

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Every few weeks an email arrives from a PR agent pitching a story that robots are poised to take over all the jobs in the food service industry. Short order cooks, bartenders, servers, even pizza bakers: their services will no longer be needed in the AI-driven future.

The most recent example came from a “Senior Media Strategist” at Ball State University, who touted a new paper co-authored by Dina Marie Zemke, Associate Professor of Residential Property Management in Ball State’s Department of Applied Business Studies. Entitled “How To Build a Better Robot . . . for Quick-Service Restaurants,” it appears in the November 2020 issue of the Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Research.

I’m hoping the journal article got a more rigorous peer review than the press release promoting it. The email subject line sounds quite dire: “It's not whether robots will take over restaurants, but when....” The first line of the press release characterizes the study’s findings this way: “Restaurant industry adding robots to offset rising labor costs.”

But if you read a little further into the press release (much less the actual article), you’ll find that’s not exactly what the study concluded. Zemke and her colleagues don’t quantify how many restaurant workers have actually been replaced by robots or even whether such robots are commercially viable. Instead, they assembled focus groups of diners to collect their opinions on issues related to the use of robot technology in restaurants.

The actual findings are predictable: the overwhelming majority of those surveyed believe “there is no stopping the robotic transformation of the food service industry”. Restaurant guests, though, are worried about the societal impact of robots in restaurants, and are highly ambivalent about the prospects of such change.

This is akin to a meterologist surveying a bunch of people and asking them if they think it’s going to rain tomorrow and how that makes them feel. Futurists have been predicting that robots will take over restaurant operations for decades, but those robots armies never seem to actually arrive.

Back to the Future

Some seven decades ago, the operators of America’s burgeoning drive-in restaurants faced problems similar to those of fast food restaurateurs today: increased competition in an ever-lower margin industry, rising real estate prices driving up rent, and labor shortages driving up wages. All those car hops on roller skates didn’t come cheap.

Back then, there was no shortage of inventors offering technological solutions. Drive-in operators experimented with an array of devices to increase efficiency, like electronic ordering systems with names like “Dine-a-Mike” and “Fon-A-Chef.” Even more ambitious was Kenneth C. Purdy’s “Motormat” system, which he launched at The Track Drive-In in Los Angeles in 1949. It was a waitress-free system where diners parked their cars in stalls arranged around the central building like the spokes on a wheel. They filled out an order sheet, put it on a small carriage on a track, and pressed a button to send it gliding off to the kitchen. A few minutes later the carriage returned bearing a lap tray with the customer’s food.

The Track Drive-In, Los Angeles, California, 1949
The Track Drive-In, Los Angeles, California, 1949

The motormat concept didn’t pan out, but no one remembers that today, least of all business reporters and food writers. They still get worked up about the latest labor-saving innovations and are more than happy to help fuel the hype.

Chronic staffing challenges in the restaurant industry have certainly created a glaring market need, especially in the fast food sector, which has long depended upon younger, often part-time workers to staff their kitchens. As the New York Times reported in 2018, the number of quick-service restaurants surged in the early decades of the 21st century, but the teenage population has grown only marginally, and the number of teens participating in the labor force has actually shrunk.

So why not replace all those unreliable youths with mechanical cooks who always show up on time and don’t whine about having to tuck in their shirts? Enter Padena-based Miso Robotics and its flagship product, Flippy the burger flipping robot. All you have to do is watch the robot in action to understand why it has wowed the forward-looking business press:

In March 2018, Flippy made its much-hyped debut at restaurant called Caliburger in Pasadena. It lasted all of one day, for the robot out-paced its human co-workers and kept missing the target when putting burgers on trays. But a recalibrated Flippy was put back into service a few months later and immediately drew long lines of curious patrons eager to sample a robo-burger and snap photos of the novelty.

Though the company promised rapid expansion, for months Flippy worked a limited shift—from 12:00 pm to 1:30 pm, 5 days a week—in the Pasadena Caliburger. Another Flippy, though, landed a gig as a fry assistant at Dodger Stadium in Los Angles in July 2018, using its lasers, cameras, and thermal scanners to monitor the chicken and tater tots in the deep fryers and alert its human coworkers when the order was done. Caliburger has since installed Flippy robots at a few more of its outlets around the U.S.

Miso Robotics’ approach is very anthropomorphic, using a robotic arm and sensors to replicate the motions of a short-order cook at a flat-top griddle. Other innovators have focused on replicating the culinary output through a more machine-centric process.

In the summer of 2018, Creator launched its first burger restaurant in San Francisco. It’s built around two giant machines that automate not just the cooking of the patty but the whole assembly process. Each of the 14-foot-long units have transparent glass casings that allow a view of the internals: racks of buns, ingredients in cylindrical tubes, and a sequence of gadgets that squirt on condiments and slice fresh onions, tomatoes, and pickles. These drop onto the bottom bun as it moves a long a conveyor belt, and a freshly cooked patty and the top bun are added at the end of the line.

Bot chefs have a broader repertoire than just burgers and fries. Chowbotics’ “Sally” is a refrigerator-sized unit that can assemble only the fly some 21 fresh, pre-chopped ingredients into thousands of permutations of salad. Bay Area startup Zume devised an entire family of robots to operate a cyber-pizzeria, including Vincenzo, who plucks par-baked pizza crusts from 800-degree ovens and deposits them on cooling racks; Pepe and Giorgio, who sauce the crusts; and Bruno, who loads them into the oven for the final bake.

Zune competitor Vivid Robotics took more of an assembly line approach to pizza-making. Instead of pivoting and swiveling arms, computerized dispensers apply sauce, cheese, and toppings to the crust as it slides along a conveyor belt. At the end, a human transfers the assembled pizza into an oven for baking. Vivid adopted a sales model in which restaurants pay a monthly fee instead of buying the robots upfront. Old fashioned companies called this “equipment leasing,” but Vivid is based in Seattle, so it’s termed the model “Robotics-as-a-Service” (RaaS) pricing.

The Human Factor

There have been tons of effort in recent years to automate the front of the house, too. From ordering kiosks to iPad menus, much of the effort is focused on digitizing interactions with diners. But plenty of firms are trying out robot servers, too, evoking endless comparisons to the Jetsons’ robot maid Rosie from the 1960s cartoon.

Last summer, Big Bang Pizza in Atlanta rolled out a trio of robot waitresses, but these seem more novelty items that delight kiddie customers than a replacement for human workers. (Ligaya Figueras of the the Atlanta Journal-Constitution dubbed it “Chuck E. Cheese 2.0”.) More in the utilitarian vein is Penny, a small pedestal-shaped server robot from Silicon Valley startup Bear Robotics. A human server loads Penny with plates at the kitchen window, and it ferries them to diners’ tables, allowing the restaurant’s staff to spend more time interacting with customers.

And that’s the theme that runs through all these robotic worker stories. They’re cast in very disruptive, revolutionary terms—“robots will take over restaurants”, “short of workers, fast-food restaurants turn to robots”, “machines on the rise”—but even the entrepreneurs selling the technology don’t promise a labor revolution. Indeed, Miso Robotics CEO David Zito told USA Today that “no one at Caliburger lost their job to make room for Flippy . . . The robot can't work without humans.”

A few sober-minded analysts take a more conservative stance. In an article published last year, Syd Bishop of QSR Automation concluded, “It’s extremely unlikely that robots will replace human workers soon.” He cites economic factors—upfront costs, ongoing maintenance—as key barries, then points to one that I think is even more important: restaurant patrons crave and value human interaction.

There’s a reason the 1930’s Automat didn’t survive, and the 1950s Motormat didn’t, either. We want our restaurants to be personalized, to have that human touch. The last two decades have seen the continued rise of the celebrity chef in fine dining restaurants, and the elevation of barbecue pitmasters to celebrity chef status, too. We want our cooks to have a face, a name, and—more important than anything else—a story.

The “Speedy Service System” of McDonald’s and its fast food peers drove the race to the bottom in terms of price and efficiency, but McDonald’s has struggled in recent years. What has arisen to challenge it? Quick service restaurants where actual human beings talk to you over a counter and chop up your salad or roll together your burrito while you watch and tell them what ingredients you want.

In a 2011 study, Ryan Buell and Michael Norton, two Harvard Business School professors, concluded that customers enjoy a sandwich more when they watch it being made instead of just receiving a finished product. That notion doesn’t seem so counterintuitive that we should need a rigorous academic study to prove it, but all the breathless news stories about the impending robot “disruption” rarely take the human factor into account.

Peering Into The Post-Pandemic Future

PR reps may be right that “it's not whether robots will take over . . . but when,” but
when doesn’t seem to be any time soon. There are plenty of stories of VC-backed startups launching their first test installations, but few (if any) have gotten beyond the pilot stage, much less achieved a significant number of adopters. And they are increasingly blowing through their investors’ cash without much revenue to show for it.

In January of this year, Zume, the robot pizzamaker, laid off half its workforce and shuttered its pizza-making operation, shifting its focus to food packaging and delivery products. Creator, two years after its much hyped launch, still had only the single San Francisco location to show for its efforts.

That same month, Miso Robotics announced that it had retooled its burger-flipping and fry-cooking robots so they could be mounted on the overhead ventilation hood rather than standing on the floor. So far, Flippy’s install base remains limited to a handful of Caliburger outlets, which are owned by Miso’s parent company, Cali Group, and two stadium concessions, Dodger Stadium and the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field.

But hype springs eternal, and marketers of kitchen robots have seized up the latest restaurant industry challenge as the newest problem that their robots are the perfect solution for: the coronavirus pandemic.

In August Miso Robotics inked a deal to pilot Flippy for the White Castle hamburger chain. The company declared in the press release that with robotics automation and AI, “restaurants can build a future focused kitchen” with “reduced human contact with food during the cooking process – reducing potential for transmission of food pathogens.”

That may be the case, but it hasn’t helped automated restaurants navigate the pandemic any better than their human-staffed peers. Creator in San Francisco closed its doors in June for an indefinite period and, as of this writing, CaliBurger’s Pasadena restaurant remains closed, too.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.