Restaurants looking for labor and speed turn to robots

At the Inspire Brands Innovation Center in Atlanta, the robot Flippy faces a new challenge. The robotic worker, made by Miso Robotics, made its debut on the scene as a burger solution. Now, it’s frying wings for the first time.

The robots, known as Flippy 1 and 2, have been in development for nearly five years and are pilots for brands like CaliBurger and White Castle. Repeating the wings in the Inspire’s Buffalo Wild Wings brand are being tested as a way to increase production and speed. The hope is to expand its use in 2022 and beyond.

“Our strategy and vision for automation at Inspire is not about labor shortages, but about how we can increase our capacity,” said Stephanie Sentell, senior vice president of restaurant operations and innovation at Inspire. “The automation we’re looking at will allow us to unleash that and deliver faster food to our guests.”

Flippy robots at their stations.

Courtesy: Miso Robotics

But labor shortages are inevitable. The National Restaurant Association recently reported that 4 out of 5 operators are understaffed. This includes 81% of full-service operators and 75% of limited-service operators. Robots can help alleviate staffing challenges and speed up operations.

Frying station repair

Miso said the Flippy 2 could help fill a challenging role in kitchens – the frying station.

“The frying station is one of those jobs, and it’s hard to do,” said Mike Bell, CEO of Miso Robotics. “It’s monotonous, sometimes dangerous, and it’s very repetitive. So it was a perfect opportunity for automation bots to step in and help brands like Buffalo Wild Wings.”

A bot can cost up to $3000 a month. Miso expects to participate in dozens of pilots with major restaurant chains in the next few months.

White Castle team member next to Filipe.

Courtesy: Miso Robotics

And while Flippy works in the back of the house, Matradee of Richtech can wait and bus tables. The robot, which retails for up to $20,000, has been tested at restaurants including California Pizza Kitchen.

Richtech’s chief operating officer, Phil Cheng, told CNBC that the company has signed up for large chains of pilots weekly in this challenging environment.

“Our food runner [robot] “It basically allows servers to serve more tables, and customers get their food faster,” Cheng said. Restaurants can increase revenue, because servers are able to have more time communicating with customers. … they can increase the sale of drinks or specials and things like that as well as bring in more revenue for the company. “

The company also has a hospitality cleaning robot and anticipates future opportunities in airports and even higher living facilities where labor shortages are expected to persist for years to come.

The use of robots also extends far beyond the internal operations of food companies. Ghost and virtual kitchen companies also tend to use robots to deliver food to customers.

Kitchen United this week launched a five-day pilot program using the Kiwibot to take restaurant orders from its location in the Westfield Valley Fair Mall in the Bay Area to homes within a half-mile radius. Reef Virtual Kitchens has a similar program with Cartken in Miami.

Fast food companies Domino’s and Chipotle are also involved in Softbank-backed Nuro. Domino’s launched a pilot in Houston with the Nuro self-driving car last spring. Chipotle revealed in March that it had invested in Nuro as part of its funding round in late 2020.

Challenges ahead with robots

A recent EMSI report titled “The Demographic Drought” noted that while automation can help ease labor pain, it faces two challenges. First, robots cannot fully replace people. Secondly, the current labor shortage is not going anywhere, and workers will be needed to build robots and other automated technology solutions.

“Companies trying to invest in the development of artificial intelligence are already facing a significant shortage of labor and skills. As for robotic automation, the market share analysis of robotic automation showed that the industries already most invested in (automobiles, electronics, metals) continue to lead the market, while Collaborative robots do not meet the criteria for market penetration.”

White Castle team member next to Filipe.

Courtesy: Miso Robotics

Ron Hetrick, labor economist at EMSI and one of the report’s authors, said the industry as a whole is not yet able to bring robotics to a meaningful level. But future restaurant business models will continue to evolve as business challenges continue. Business models are expected to change so that the amount of service customers need will decrease.

“You’re likely to lose out on the number of restaurants you can go to to sit in,” Hetrick said.

Bill Meso said the demand for software engineers is always high, but the company faces “normal challenges” in terms of worker availability. The current supply chain crisis is an immediate concern.

“We don’t have a supply shortage at this time and we don’t really expect it to happen in the next six months. But in the long-term, there are a lot of things that we need to solve. We hope that this global supply chain will adjust itself in the coming months.”

– CNBC channel Whitney Books Contribute to this report.

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