For fast-food restaurants robotic kitchens with limited repertoires look like a promising innovation.
He was supposed to revolutionize a California fast food kitchen, churning out 150 burgers per hour without requiring a paycheck or benefits. But after a single day of working as a cook at a Caliburger location in Pasadena this week, Flippy -the burger-flipping robot- has stopped flipping.
Creator, a new hamburger joint in San Francisco, claims to deliver a burger worth $18 for $6—in other words, to provide the quality associated with posh restaurants at a fast-food price.
Until recently, catering robots have been gimmicks. “Flippy”, a robotic arm that flipped burgers for the entertainment of customers at CaliBurger, near Los Angeles, earlier this year is a prime example.
But Flippy could perform only one task. Creator’s bot automates the whole process of preparing a burger. And it is not alone. Other robot chefs that can prepare entire meals are working, or soon will be, in kitchens in other parts of America, and in China and Britain.
What works for one sort of fast food can work for others. Though the business of pizza-making has not yet been robotized completely, Zume Pizza, also based in California, is getting close. It has a team of “doughbots” that speed up stretching the dough from 45 seconds to just nine. The toppings still have to be made the conventional way, but the firm has robotized the dispensing and spreading of them, and also the moving of topped pizzas into and out of ovens.
Over on America’s east coast, in Boston, a restaurant called Spyce offers more fashionable robot-created fare. Customers order from a touchscreen menu and can watch the robot measure, mix and cook dishes ranging from “Latin” (black beans and roasted chicken with chilli and avocado on brown rice) to “Hearth” (balsamic-glazed sprouts and sweet potato with kale on quinoa) in an inductively heated wok. Woks stand in a row beneath a conveyor belt, which automatically delivers the correct ingredients to each. They are then mixed and cooked before a human server adds toppings. As with Creator’s robot, speed is of the essence. Spyce’s bot can prepare dishes in three minutes.
In China, meanwhile, Li Zhiming, an entrepreneur, has developed a robot that can cook any of 40 recipes from Hunan province. Much of Hunan’s cuisine involves heating food rapidly in oil, a process that is difficult to mechanise because of the number of different ingredients which have to be cooked “just so”.
Li has spent four years developing robots that can do this. They work in a similar way to Spyce’s, by dispensing precise quantities of each ingredient from a series of hoppers in sequence, then stirring them in a wok over a gas flame at an exact temperature for a specific, recipe-dependent time. When a meal is complete, the robot serves it into a bowl, then cleans out the cooking pot ready for the next order.
Li opened his first robot-catered restaurant in May, in Changsha, Hunan’s capital. Its kitchen is staffed by three bots and two human beings. Normally, he says, a restaurant of this size, offering that sort of variety, would have a kitchen staff of eight. Li’s ambitions, moreover, reach far beyond Hunan. He thinks the main reason such delicious dishes as clay-pot rice with vegetables, pepper-fried pork and cumin-beef stir fry are not better known outside their native province is a lack of trained chefs. He hopes his robots will overcome that difficulty and make Hunan’s cuisine as easy to franchise as fried chicken and hamburgers—and as popular.
The catering industry is known for low pay, so automation is not an obvious cost-saver.