Automation, as it has in most places, has continued to evolve in the food industry since the first vending machine appeared in the late 1890s.
Some versions, such as touch-screen ordering a Chedda’ Burger at Grassburger to expedite the ordering process, feel welcome. But can a robot make lasagna with love as grandma did, or should digital digits stay away from kneading dough and stirring Manhattans?
MakerLab co-founder and director Ryan Finnigan specializes in cocktail-making automation. He teaches classes on the subject at the Powerhouse Science Center and has won awards for his buzz-inducing inventions. MakerLab co-founder Alexi Carey’s company, E7 Systems, sub-contracted Finnigan to design and install a 55-tap, self-pour beer system for The Wall restaurant in California last year. The technology allows people to pour their own brews while paying for them from a preloaded card.
Those savings speak to one of the central questions of automation: What will happen when human jobs are replaced by robots?
Mutu’s Italian Kitchen owner Rustin Newton has been in the restaurant business for 37 years (since he was 17 years old). Newton recognizes the unstoppable momentum of tech, but also considers the irreplaceable connections he made with colleagues and employees over the years. He says many servers, chefs and bartenders who go into the food and beverage industry do so as a lifelong career choice and don’t necessarily have a Plan B.
But robot chefs are already prepping workstations, slicing, frying and flipping, though most stick to simple tasks. California fast-food joint CaliBurger was the first to purchase Flippy, a robotic arm with a spatula hand that would make SpongeBob SquarePants drool. Filppy helps workers on the cooking line and saves them from hot grease and tired wrists. Spyce in Boston is a fully automated kitchen that serves wok-prepared meals after ingredients are measured, combined and dispensed from a refrigerator. The first fully-automated-chef-and-server restaurant, Haidilao, which serves hot-pot prepared meals, opened in Bejing in October.
These mechanical chefs, though, are missing an important skill that any master chef keeps in their silverware drawer: improvisation. Newton said it is common to alter recipes in order to utilize fresh ingredients that change with the season. Adaptation is one of the subtleties of cooking in an eatery where there are unexpected factors, such as parties with picky children, various allergies and no reservations, who will inevitably request to speak to a manager. Can a robot handle that?
Finnigan thinks so. He said the data is out there and the tech is sufficient, so a recipe-improvising artificial intelligence may only be five years off. He also said, however, that pop culture’s estimate of everyone owning a cooking and cleaning Jetsons-style Rosie is further off.
“Those complex systems are going to be some of the last things that are automated; whereas data-crunching ... those jobs’ (futures) are dismal,” Finnigan said. (Finnigan said by some higher-end estimations, robotics will replace human careers up to 38 percent over the next 15 years.)
Another speed bump on the automation fast-track is the price of the gadgets. Moley is one of the first versions of a home chef and costs around $10,000 to $15,000. Bringing new technology into the restaurant business requires deep pockets even if automation might save on labor costs down the road.
“How many dollars would a restaurant (owner) have to invest on the front side – in an already risky business to be in?” Newton asked.
There is the possibility that automation could bog us down in other areas. Most would agree that the advent of the cellphone has resulted in more work. This is why Newton at Mutu’s hasn’t incorporated online ordering, which is becoming the norm in many restaurants.
“Say in the middle of a Friday or Saturday night you are as busy as you can be, then it would be like suddenly picking up 12 more tables,” he said.
There is also the question of automation eliminating the soul of creative expression.
At Denver’s Birdcall, diners order a fried chicken sandwich via touchscreen, and then their meal appears in a honeycomb-shaped slot in a wall that separates the guests from employees. The whole experience is like something out of “Black Mirror” – void of personal interaction, despite the fact real unseen people work mysteriously behind the scenes like hatchery-made Epsilons.
“I still believe that the heart of something comes through,” Newton said. “Is your mom’s lasagna fantastic just because it’s your mom’s lasagna, or just because she made it?”
Finnigan has a different perspective.
“I understand how some people would have a moral qualm, but I am so engaged with technology as it is, you get adjusted to it in phases,” Finnigan said. “I embrace it ... It’s more important for us to have a conversation about how things will change.”
Similar to how Finnigan’s self-pour system will supplement – not replace – the bar experience, Newton thinks the same will happen to restaurants. He thinks there may be more and more fully-automated kitchens in crowded, busy spaces where people are on the go, such as airports or train stations, but they won’t replace the social aspect of eating together. Newton points to how self-pouring coffee was all the rage in the ’80s, but now you would have to pry the cozy café environment out of our warm-blooded hands.
“It’s what I call the ‘Cheers’ factor,” Newton said.
The restaurant industry may live on as we know it today in the second machine age, at least until a Ted Danson machine can pour us a cold one.