Robots tapped for food prep needs in virus era

Antelope Valley Press - - FRONT PAGE - By MARTIN CRUTSINGER AP Eco­nomics Writer

HAYWARD, — Robots that can cook —from flip­ping burg­ers to bak­ing bread — are in grow­ing de­mand as virus-wary kitchens try to put some dis­tance be­tween work­ers and cus­tomers.

Start­ing this fall, the White Cas­tle burger chain will test a ro­bot arm that can cook french fries and other foods. The ro­bot, dubbed Flippy, is made by Pasadena, Cal­i­for­nia-based Miso Robotics.

White Cas­tle and Miso have been dis­cussing a part­ner­ship for about a year. Those talks ac­cel­er­ated when COVID-19 struck, said White Cas­tle Vice Pres­i­dent Jamie Richard­son.

Richard­son said the ro­bot can free up em­ploy­ees for other tasks like dis­in­fect­ing ta­bles or han­dling the ris­ing num­ber of de­liv­ery or­ders. A touch-free en­vi­ron­ment that min­i­mizes con­tact is also in­creas­ingly im­por­tant to cus­tomers, he said.

“The world’s just re­shaped in terms of thoughts around food safety,” Richard­son said.

Flippy cur­rently costs $30,000, with a $1,500 monthly ser­vice fee. By the mid­dle of next year, Miso hopes to of­fer the ro­bot for free but charge a higher monthly fee.

Ro­bot food ser­vice was a trend even be­fore the Coro­n­avirus pan­demic, as hos­pi­tals, cam­pus cafe­te­rias and oth­ers tried to meet de­mand for fresh, cus­tom­ized op­tions 24 hours a day while keep­ing la­bor costs in check. Ro­bot chefs ap­peared at places like Cre­ator, a burger restau­rant in San Fran­cisco, and Dal.komm Cof­fee out­lets in South Korea.

Now, some say, robots may shift from be­ing a nov­elty to a ne­ces­sity. The US Cen­ters for Disease Con­trol says the risk of get­ting COVID-19 from han­dling or con­sum­ing food out­side the home is low. Still, there have been nu­mer­ous out­breaks among restau­rant em­ploy­ees and pa­trons.

“I ex­pect in the next two years you will see pretty sig­nif­i­cant ro­botic adop­tion in the food space be­cause of COVID,” said Vipin Jain, the co-founder and CEO of Blen­did, a Sil­i­con Val­ley startup.

Blen­did sells a ro­bot kiosk that makes a va­ri­ety of fresh smooth­ies. Cus­tomers can or­der from a smart­phone app and tweak the recipe if they want more kale or less gin­ger, for ex­am­ple. Once or twice a day, a Blen­did em­ployee re­fills the in­gre­di­ents.

Only a hand­ful are now op­er­at­ing around San Fran­cisco, but since the pan­demic be­gan, Blen­did has started con­tract dis­cus­sions with hos­pi­tals, cor­po­ra­tions, shop­ping malls and gro­ceries.

As salad bars shut down, Hayward, Cal­i­for­nia-based Chow­botics started get­ting more in­quiries about Sally, a ro­bot about the size of a re­frig­er­a­tor that makes a va­ri­ety of sal­ads and bowls. Sally lets cus­tomers choose from 22 pre­pared in­gre­di­ents stored in­side the ma­chine. It can make around 65 bowls a day be­fore kitchen work­ers need to re­fill the in­gre­di­ents.

Prior to this year, Chow­botics had sold around 125 of its $35,000 robots, pri­mar­ily to hos­pi­tals and col­leges. But since the Coro­n­avirus hit, sales have jumped more than 60%, CEO Rick Wilmer said, with grow­ing in­ter­est from gro­cery stores, se­nior liv­ing com­mu­ni­ties and even the US Depart­ment of De­fense.

Ro­bot cooks haven’t al­ways been suc­cess­ful. Spyce, a Boston restau­rant with a ro­bot-run kitchen, closed in Novem­ber to re­tool its menu. Zume, a Sil­i­con Val­ley startup that made piz­zas with robots, shut down its pizza busi­ness in Jan­uary. It’s now mak­ing face masks and biodegrad­able take­out con­tain­ers.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A tech­ni­cian makes an ad­just­ment to a ro­bot at Miso Robotics’ White Cas­tle test kitchen Calif., July 9. in Pasadena,

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