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When four former MIT classmates who studied mechanical engineering decided to launch a fast casual restaurant, robotic technology, no surprise, was a key part of their plans.
Spyce, which opened in downtown Boston earlier this month, looks like a typical restaurant—until you notice the open kitchen, where customers can gawk at a kind of mechanical ballet playing out in front of them. A system of robotic woks prepare grain bowl-based meals, swirling ingredients and pouring them to fill customer orders that come in from touch-based kiosks.
To be sure, Spyce isn’t going all-machine anytime soon. The restaurant still uses human workers to perform tasks including chopping vegetables, greeting customers, and putting the finishing touches on each meal.
However, the Spyce model represents the founders’ bet that the industry is ripe for disruption amid increasingly digitally savvy customers.
“There’s a huge amount of inefficiency in the industry,” said Spyce head of marketing Grace Uvezian. “As [the co-founders] began to do customer testing, they saw people were really excited about this. We spent years developing the menu and fine-turning it to the robotic kitchen. We know people will come initially for the attraction of the robots, but what will keep them coming back is the food.”
Industry research is already pointing toward how different the restaurant of tomorrow will look—that it will rely on everything from digital assistants to robotic automation, AI, and more. Indeed, a December McKinsey Global Institute report made this same point, noting that some of the givens of the restaurant experience today—such as human labor performing repetitive tasks—make the industry poised for a profound shift driven by technology.
Froyo To Go
Like Spyce’s co-founders, entrepreneur Nick Yates is also at the front of that shift. Yates is the founder and chairman of Generation NEXT, the parent company of Reis & Irvy's. The latter, through its robot-based kiosks, wants to be seen as something akin to the Redbox of frozen yogurt.
Each Reis & Irvy's kiosk is a self-contained, 15-square-foot yogurt shop that the company parks in high-traffic areas—hospitals, museums, universities, and the like, Yates told CMO.com. Customers order their yogurt from a touchscreen, with a choice of two “froyo robots” to handle their requests. A robotic arm fills the order, and dispenses it after applying chosen toppings.
“We looked at the retail business and thought it’s flawed, to some degree. You have to go and find a space. Rents may be expensive. You have to hire the labor and market to bring customers into your store,” Yates said. “We saw an opportunity to develop this kind of unattended and automated version of the same thing. ... I see this coming in the food and restaurant business in a big way, though it’s also important to add that you’re never going to replace the personal touch and smile of a human being.”
Seems Yates knows what he’s talking about: In March, Generation NEXT inked a multimillion-dollar franchise agreement for Reis & Irvy’s in Los Angeles and Orange County. The company has already presold about 215 franchises, representing about 1,100 robots that are now beginning to make their way to market.
Some ventures are taking the approach of using technology as a gimmick to get a customer through the door. At least that’s the thinking at the Tipsy Robot, a robot-operated bar in Las Vegas where two giant, robotic arms shake, mix, and pour drinks.
“This is more of an attraction—we’re not looking to replace bartenders, by any means,” said Stephan Morneg, president of Tipsy Robot parent Robotic Innovations Inc. “Robots have been in the public space in pop culture and science fiction for 50 years, and they interest people from all ages and all different backgrounds.”
But there’s more to it than just a show, he added. “It also is a medium for the guest to create something,” Morneg told CMO.com. “You can use our application to build your own drink that the robots mix. You see couples building their drinks together, going through the menus. They’re really drilling down and seeing what’s here.”
Another example? Meet Flippy, a burger-flipping, AI-powered robot that was piloted in March at the CaliBurger restaurant in Pasadena, Calif. The company behind Flippy, Miso Robotics, earlier this year completed a $10 million funding round it said will be used to make its Miso AI machine-learning cloud platform more robust.
“We say it gives eyes and a brain to the industrial robotic arm,” said Miso CEO and co-founder David Zito, in an interview with Digital Trends. “[Flippy] doesn’t just see what’s going on, but it actually is trained to understand, through thermal sensors, the delta between the temperature of the patty and the grill.”
Plans call for Flippy to expand to other CaliBurder locations this year. In addition, Zito said the company has lined up a partnership with Levy Restaurants to debut robotic kitchen assistants like Flippy at sports and entertainment venues nationwide.
Also getting into the act: Sony’s U.S. subsidiary, which last month announced it’s teaming with Carnegie Mellon University to collaborate on AI and robotics research.
Their initial focus? Optimizing food prep, cooking, and delivery. They chose that as the starting point because the skills necessary for an AI system to handle those tasks “could be applied to a broader set of skills and industries,” both organizations said in a prepared statement about their work.
As part of the collaboration, researchers plan on developing new robots for predefined food preparation items and for moving around in a confined space, like a kitchen.
The use of digital assistants, meanwhile, also opens up intriguing possibilities for restaurants.
At Domino’s Pizza, more than 65% of its U.S. sales come in via its various digital platforms—which include its virtual-ordering assistant “Dom,” who can be contacted via Facebook Messenger.
In addition, last month Domino’s announced the launch of a voice-recognition application to take phone orders that come in to its stores. That voice-recognition system—sort of a phone version of the interaction with Dom via Facebook—is currently being tested in 20 stores across the U.S., with a wider rollout coming soon.
Arguably, the intent is for initiatives like these and others to translate into sales, more business, and more customers through the doors.
That’s the philosophy guiding hamburger chain Bareburger in its digital experiments. Later this summer, the chain will be putting Snapcodes on its dining menus and, eventually, its takeout bags. Hold up your phone to the menu code, and an AR version of the company’s CEO will materialize on the table in front of you to walk you through the restaurant’s specials.
“This allows us to connect with our guests directly and lets our staff focus on things they do best,” said Bareburger CMO Nabeel Alamgir. “It’s also part of our ethos. We just want to have fun. I love technology more than I love burgers, … and I think more people are paying attention to technology right now than ever before.”