The Rise of the Robo-Cooks

In the hospitality industry, hiring and retaining reliable staff has been a challenge. Many businesses are addressing this by making operational changes and incorporating robotics and artificial intelligence into their operations.

I recently attended the National Restaurant Association restaurant show, which took place from May 18 through 21 in Chicago. The show was amazing and offered a intellectually and emotionally nourishing experience for chefs and hospitality professionals, with thousands of exhibitors showcasing an array of products, equipment, and services, as well as fantastic food and beverage offerings. Chef Jose Andres delivered an awe-inspiring and humbling keynote presentation. One of the most impressive and surprising aspects of the show was the amount of technology on display, particularly technology designed to minimize the need for humans to execute food preparation by replacing it with fully functional robots programmed through AI. These robots claim to offer quality and consistency while decreasing labor expenses.

Several companies, including NALA, Miso Robotics, and RoboChef, have developed fully functional, AI-trained robots to simplify the preparation and cooking of food items like French fries, chicken wings, and hamburgers. These companies claim that their robots can reduce food waste by 33% and labor costs by 75%. Additionally, companies like Keenon and Richtech have created robots aimed at reducing the number of front-of-house (FOH) staff needed to serve tables and address the long wait times often experienced in foodservice establishments.

On a different note, companies like Rational and Alto-Shaam have taken a different approach by developing equipment that guides the cook through the cooking process. These companies have focused on creating fully programmable combi ovens and tilt skillets. These units allow chefs to preprogram specific cooking instructions, including temperatures, times, and cooking methods like roasting, sous vide, steaming, smoking, and reverse searing. The equipment also indicates when each step is completed and when the next ingredient needs to be added.

What Is the feasibility of this technology?

There is no doubt that we live in a technologically driven era, and the inclusion of robotics and artificial intelligence in all types of business is inevitable. However, we need to consider how much technology is too much technology. What application does this technology have in an industry like ours where passion is one of the main ingredients, and the soul, the vision, and the culinary intention of the chef need to be in full display?

Having an automated robot in the kitchen can decrease labor and food costs, but initial investments can be high, ranging from $250,000 to $350,000. Fully automated kitchens may be suitable for Quick Service Restaurants but may not be as useful for upscale, full-service restaurants. Technology like that developed by Alto-Shaam and Rational simplifies processes, expedites employee training, and reduces the need for multiple pieces of equipment, although it comes with a hefty price tag, costing anywhere from $15000 to $65000, depending on the brand and size of the oven.

The reality is that there is no escaping the rise of technology. In most instances, these technologies have been developed to fill a market void, fulfill a current demand, and address the employment shortage our industry has experienced. According to MarketResearch.Biz, the global robot kitchen market was valued at $2.3 billion USD in 2022, and it is expected to have a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12.3%. The forecasted value by the year 2032 is $7.9 billion. It is likely that in the next few years, with increased competition in the robot kitchen market, we will see a slight decrease in the cost of this technology, making it more feasible to implement. Perhaps in the near future, we will have Roby the friendly robot saying “my pleasure” to you at Chik-Fil-A.

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