How Soon May Robotic Kitchens Migrate to Grocerants?

Even if your volume justifies the spend, you’ll still need a clear workforce plan

June 27, 2018

Robots are coming to quick-serves, pizza chains, bars, fast-casual eateries and other foodservice formats. They can make operations efficient and labor saving, and add novelty appeal to customers seeking new dining experiences. 

Yet automation was also one big reason that nearly 50,000 Las Vegas hospitality and casino-hotel workers almost went on strike earlier in June.  By this newsletter’s deadline, Culinary Workers Union Local 226 of Las Vegas had reached initial terms with larger employers Caesars Entertainment and MGM Resorts International and was negotiating contracts with 15 smaller properties.

Tempted by the technology?  Grocerant operators should first weigh potential operating gains against necessary investments and maintenance, and the unsettling effect robots can have on job security.  As minimum wage raises push robotics to the fore, and innovators like Zume Pizza in Silicon Valley and Spyce Restaurant in Boston refine food-prep processes, grocerants may soon aim to achieve their own worker-robot balance.

Zume Pizza CEO Alex Garden, whose mobile kitchen trucks bake on-route up to 120 app-ordered pizzas per hour so they’re hot upon delivery, told CNBC analyst Jim Cramer:  “When we automate a boring, dangerous, repetitive task, we promote that person.” Co-founder Julia Collins told The Verge, “Our best pizza spinner is really happy to work on our menu and ingredient selection.” 

Spyce, the fast-casual eatery hatched by four MIT engineering graduates, cooks food within three minutes in a robotic kitchen once customers enter orders on an electronic kiosk.  Woks constantly tumble contents for seven varieties of salad and grain bowls for an even sear, the founders described in a Q&A with Business Insider.  Only one kitchen person is needed to add toppings to dishes. 

A few additional questions grocerants should consider before bringing in robots:

Are our food concepts simple enough for robots to handle? Is our volume high enough to warrant the dollar investment?  How difficult is maintenance?  What’s the risk of downtime, and what is our contingency plan if that happens at peak or slow times?  What other opportunities could we develop for our workers if we automate certain tasks?

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