Robot chefs: Hype or in­dus­try change?

This au­toma­tion may just be hype, but it has the po­ten­tial to shake up the in­dus­try

The Morning Journal (Lorain, OH) - - FRONT PAGE - By Matt O’brien The As­so­ci­ated Press

Ro­bots cook up veg­eta­bles and grains and spout them into a bowl at a new restau­rant in Bos­ton.

BOS­TON » Ro­bots can’t yet bake a souf­fle or fold a bur­rito, but they can cook up veg­eta­bles and grains and spout them into a bowl — and are do­ing just that at a new fast ca­sual restau­rant in Bos­ton.

Seven au­tonomously swirling cook­ing pots — what the restau­rant calls a “never-be­fore-seen ro­botic kitchen” — hum be­hind the counter at Spyce, which opened Thurs­day in the city’s down­town.

Push a touch-screen menu to pur­chase a $7.50 meal called “Hearth.” A blend of Brussels sprouts, quinoa, kale and sweet pota­toes tum­bles from hop­pers and into one of the pots. The pot heats the food us­ing mag­netic in­duc­tion, then tips to dunk the cooked meal into a bowl. Wa­ter jets up to rinse it off be­fore a new or­der be­gins.

Is this a robot chef or just an­other high-tech novelty ma­chine? Ex­perts dif­fer, but more such au­toma­tion is likely headed for the fast-food sec­tor in com­ing years.

A re­port last year by the McKin­sey Global In­sti­tute said that food prepa­ra­tion jobs are highly vul­ner­a­ble to au­toma­tion be­cause work­ers spend so much time on pre­dictable phys­i­cal tasks.

Cur­rently, there’s one big thing hold­ing back the chef­bots: “The hu­man la­bor also tends to be low­er­paid,” said McKin­sey part­ner Michael Chui, mak­ing it less eco­nom­i­cal to au­to­mate those jobs. But that could change as busi­nesses de­velop cheaper and more ef­fi­cient robot chefs.

Spyce has those, and au­to­mated or­der-tak­ing kiosks to boot, although it still em­ploys plenty of hu­mans. Founded by four for­mer MIT class­mates who part­nered with Miche­lin­starred chef Daniel Boulud, the restau­rant has hired peo­ple to do the trick­ier prep work — par­boil­ing rice, rins­ing and chop­ping veg­eta­bles, cut­ting meat and re­duc­ing sauces in an off-site com­mis­sary kitchen. It also em­ploys a hand­ful of peo­ple for cus­tomer ser­vice and to gar­nish the robot-cooked blends with fresh top­pings.

But the mes­mer­iz­ing ma­chin­ery, equipped with dozens of mo­tors, sen­sors and mov­ing parts, is the real draw.

“The open­ness of the de­sign was some­thing we knew we wanted from the be­gin­ning,” said Brady Knight, a co-founder and en­gi­neer. “It is kind of a show. It’s fun to see what’s go­ing on be­hind the scenes. We didn’t want to hide any­thing be­cause we think what we made is pretty cool.”

Au­toma­tion in the food in­dus­try isn’t ex­actly new, though it’s often un­seen by cus­tomers. Think of the choco­late fac­tory con­veyor belt that led to comedic mishaps in a fa­mous “I Love Lucy” episode in the 1950s, or machines that wash dishes and brew cof­fee. There was also the early 20th cen­tury fad of wait­er­less “au­tomat” cafe­te­rias that served hot food when cus­tomers fed a coin to open a glass door.

But while food pro­cess­ing machines are prized for their speed and hy­giene — “our robot doesn’t get sick,” Knight said — they have a harder time han­dling the com­plex­i­ties of fresh food.

In Moun­tain View, Cal­i­for­nia, the founders of Zume Pizza spent years tin­ker­ing with a ro­botic kitchen that can form pizza dough, ap­ply tomato sauce and trans­fer the pizza in and out of the oven. Other jobs that re­quire more dex­ter­ity and judg­ment — such as lay­er­ing on top­pings — are left to hu­mans, and the robot only per­forms tasks it can do dra­mat­i­cally bet­ter, CEO Alex Gar­den said.

Gar­den said his phi­los­o­phy is that “au­toma­tion ex­ists to im­prove the qual­ity of hu­man life,” so he in­vests sav­ings from the in­creased pro­duc­tiv­ity in higher wages for em­ploy­ees and higher-qual­ity in­gre­di­ents for cus­tomers.

Spyce’s founders said they chose a rel­a­tively sim­ple type of meal — grain bowls — and avoided try­ing to use ro­botic arms . With each “de­gree of free­dom,” a ro­bot­ics term for move­ment on a joint or axis, more things can go wrong with the machines, they said.

“Butcher­ing is pretty hard to do,” said Chui, the McKin­sey part­ner. “On the other hand, machines do a pretty good job of tak­ing the ker­nels out of corn and a lot of sort­ing tasks.”

Restaurants mar­ket­ing them­selves as pow­ered by ro­bots or au­toma­tion have grabbed at­ten­tion from gawk­ing first-time cus­tomers in re­cent years, but haven’t usu­ally lived up to the hype. In 2007, a sit-down restau­rant in Nurem­berg, Ger­many, be­gan de­liv­er­ing food by glid­ing it down curvy rails and onto a big turntable.

The restau­rant’s owner, Michael Mack, told The As­so­ci­ated Press at the time that he was try­ing to elim­i­nate “un­com­fort­able” fast-food ex­pe­ri­ences such as long lines, car­ry­ing meals to the ta­ble and clean­ing up.

The restau­rant has since closed. Its on­line re­views com­plain of high prices and traf­fic jams in­volv­ing backed-up serv­ing pots.

Also stalled is a burger-flipping robot named Flippy that was put on leave from a South­ern Cal­i­for­nia restau­rant just days af­ter its March de­but. Its maker, Miso Ro­bot­ics, said Thurs­day that the robot should be back in ser­vice later this month af­ter some tweaks to speed up its per­for­mance.

Spyce has gen­er­ated en­thu­si­asm among down­town Bos­ton of­fice work­ers, though tech­nol­ogy ex­perts in a city known for spawn­ing ro­bot­ics star­tups aren’t sure what to call it.

“I re­ally wouldn’t con­sider that a robot,” said Tom Ry­den, di­rec­tor of Bos­ton-based startup in­cu­ba­tor MassRobotics, who re­serves that def­i­ni­tion for a de­vice with the abil­ity to re­act to its en­vi­ron­ment.

“It can’t make de­ci­sions,” Ry­den said of Spyce’s auto-pot. “It can’t say some­thing’s cooked too long. There’s no feed­back loop. It’s just an au­to­mated sys­tem.”

But Ry­den said he’s still ea­ger to join the lunchtime crowds in try­ing it out.

PHOTOS BY CHARLES KRUPA — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A worker lifts a lunch bowl off the pro­duc­tion line at Spyce, a restau­rant which uses a ro­botic cook­ing process, in Bos­ton. Ro­bots can’t yet bake a souf­fle or fold a bur­rito, but the new restau­rant in Bos­ton is em­ploy­ing what it calls a...

Cus­tomers wait as their au­to­mat­i­cally pre­pared food is dropped from a cook­ing pot into a bowl at Spyce,

Charles Ren­wick lead soft­ware en­gi­neer at Spyce Food Com­pany, right, as­sists a cus­tomer with an or­der at the Spyce restau­rant, which uses a ro­botic cook­ing process in Bos­ton.

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