Was 2023 the year of the automated and semi-automated restaurant? Although robot-staffed restaurants are not anything new, we’re starting to see the rise of human-free or “human-lite” foodservice operations, where food is prepared by robot arms and stored inside food lockers. From companies like Nala Robotics, Mezli, and Remy Robotics, to restaurant operators like Sweetgreen, human-free restaurants are becoming an attractive subsect of technology in an industry with rising labor costs.
The latest company to join the automated restaurant movement is Miso Robotics — parent company of Flippy — which has partnered with its investor, Cali Group, and facial verification company, PopID — to create CaliExpress: allegedly the world’s first automated burger restaurant.
Speaking of the rise of the automated restaurant, Travis Kalanick is now investing in robotic kitchens, and in other restaurant tech news this month-- McDonald’s announced a partnership with Google Cloud, Starbucks has created a network of electric charging stations at select cafes, and more.
Tech Tracker rounds up what’s happening in the technology sector of the restaurant industry, including news from restaurants, vendors, digital platforms, and third-party delivery companies. Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know and why:
Miso Robotics, Cali Group, and PopID team up to create an automated burger restaurant
CaliExpress is the new automated restaurant specializing in wagyu blend burgers, created through a partnership with Miso Robotics (owner of Flippy the robot), facial verification company PopID, and their investor, Cali Group.
Though CaliExpress — located in Pasadena, Calif. — might not be the first fully automated restaurant, they are in good company. Customers can walk into the restaurant, order at a kiosk using PopID technology and then watch their order being made using proprietary robotic technology at the automated grilling and frying stations. When the order comes in through the POS system, the burger is automatically ground by robotic arms and then deposited on a bun. Although the cooking itself is automated, orders are assembled for the final steps and bagged using human hands.
“We wanted to focus on automating the fry station completely-- We think the robot can do that really well, and it has taken years to get to this point,” John Miller, chairman and CEO of CaliGroup said. “We’ve also worked out how to automatically grind and cook the patty, but we’re a long way’s away from the actual assembly of the burger with lettuce and tomato….You have to focus on basic tasks to start off with…the ultimate goal was to operate a restaurant with just one employee and we’ve been able to do that.”
Since CaliExpress only needs one employee to operate, labor costs are significantly cut down, which has allowed CaliGroup to offer wagyu blend premium burgers at the price of standard burgers. Once this business model is proven, Miller said that CaliGroup hopes to invest more in the technology and open more restaurants, or be able to acquire other restaurants with high labor costs and use this technology to automate them.
“We believe that this kind of technology is sustainable and scalable,” he said. “The rapid pace of advancements in AI and robotics will touch all areas of life. In the restaurant industry, these technologies will enable higher quality, lower cost, and more consistent food for consumers. And employees working in the restaurant industry will be retrained as technicians managing these systems.
Travis Kalanick’s latest venture is Lab37 with its automated bowl-building technology
Travis Kalanick — former CEO of Uber and founder of Cloud Kitchens, which recently laid off staff and put some sites in hibernation mode — has announced his new venture. Lab37 is a subsidiary of Cloud Kitchens headed by Eric Meyhofer, former head of Uber’s self-driving car division, and creates automated technology for use in restaurants, as first reported by The Spoon.
“Driven by our passionate chefs and the nerdy engineer mindset, we created a food lab to build automation tools that can help the restaurant operator deliver tastiness, authenticity, and everyday convenience all while making a better living doing it,” Lab37 said in a statement on its website.
The new venture came online in September with the new automated “Bowl Builder.” The Bowl Builder will be partnering with restaurant concepts in the near future who want to turn their Chipotle-like bowl concept into an automated assembly line. The Bowl Builder can place the bowl onto a closed loop conveyor system where it can traverse 18 different hot or cold temperature ingredient sections and then disperses them without food waste. Utensils are then added and then orders are properly sealed before being distributed to the customer.
So far, the technology has been tested on The Hungry Cowgirl – part of Lab 37’s R&D kitchen company — which creates Tex-Mex-inspired bowls using the automated assembly line technology. The next step, according to the Lab37 website, will be to get this technology set up in CloudKitchens’ location in Pittsburgh, where the Hungry Cowlgirl will be able to distribute bowls made using automated technology at scale.
McDonald’s partners with Google Cloud to apply AI solutions portfolio-wide
Earlier this month, McDonald’s announced a new partnership with Google Cloud to connect the McDonald’s store portfolio with cloud technology generative AI solutions, which will help the quick-service chain to accelerate automation innovation company-wide.
According to Brian Rice, McDonald’s chief information officer, the partnership is set to create the “most sophisticated platform in the industry” that will be able to future-proof the company’s restaurants as the age of AI dawns.
For more information, check out NRN’s analysis of McDonald’s latest technology investments here.
Starbucks opens a network of electric vehicle chargers
Starbucks has expanded its partnership with Volvo and CharePoint Holdings to set up a network of 50 electric vehicle charging stations at 15 locations between Denver and Seattle, Volvo announced earlier this month. This 1,350-mile route will be the first public electric-vehicle fast charging network and will allow customers to grab a charge (and coffee) and go roughly every 100 miles.
“Public EV charging should be as easy as getting a great cup of coffee – and now, it can be thanks to our partnership with Volvo Car USA,” Michael Kobori, Starbucks chief sustainability officer, said in a statement. “As we reimagine the Starbucks Experience of the future, we’re excited to invite our customers on our journey to become a resource positive company.”
World’s first underground food delivery system launches
Underground logistics network, PipeDream, announced it is partnering with smart city innovation center, Curiosity Lab, to create the world’s first below-ground robot delivery system in Peachtree Corners, Georgia. Peachtree Corners will be the first city to launch and install the underground logistics solution, which spans just short of one mile, and can carry food, packages, groceries and more back and forth from the Curiosity Lab innovation Center to the end of the underground network of tubes.
According to Curiosity Lab, taking these autonomous robot vehicles off the road will create fewer emissions, reduce traffic congestion and help get consumer goods faster, starting in Dec. 2023.
“By bringing the delivery system underground and directly to the customer, Pipedream is showcasing the future of logistics technology that will not only bring added convenience to our residents and businesses but also reduce traffic, noise and emissions from delivery vehicles on our roads,” Brandon Branham, assistant city manager and CTO of Peachtree Corners, said in a statement.
Soundhound acquires Synq3 AI tool
AI voice company Soundhound announced earlier this month the acquisition of Synq3 Restaurant Solutions voice AI and technology solutions company. The merger makes Soundhound the voice AI network in the United States, with more than 10,000 signed restaurant locations across 25 restaurant chains for a total of 100,000 restaurants nationally using the Soundhound voice AI technology.
“In joining forces, SoundHound AI and Synq3 will be the go-to standard for cutting-edge voice and conversational AI solutions for the restaurant industry,” Keyvan Mohajer, CEO and cofounder of SoundHound AI said in a statement. “Restaurant operators are turning to technology en-masse, and voice AI is now playing a key role in helping them drive sales, reduce costs, and alleviate the burden of increasing demand on their employees.”
Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]