, ,

When a robot makes your burger or coffee, do you leave a tip? This question is no longer hypothetical. Restaurants, finding that human workers are hard to hire in sufficient numbers and expensive to keep on the payrolls, increasingly turn to robots to fill the gaps caused by labor shortages and rising wages.

For example, Flippy the robot cooks French fries, chicken tenders, and tater tots at White Castle. The views of Flippy in action are remarkable (see https://www.businessinsider.com/Fast-food-robots-chipotle-white-castle-panera-2022-4). Flippy consists of a long mechanical arm, covered with a sort of sleeve. It moves back and forth across the kitchen, attached to an overhead rail. Within this space, it performs especially risky kitchen jobs, such as deep frying, while human workers remain safely out of range of the potentially splattering hot oil.

Flippy was first introduced by Miso Robotics in 2017, designed to flip burgers in a chain of California burger restaurants—hence its name. But its job quickly expanded beyond just turning a spatula. More advanced than traditional assembly-line robots, Flippy features a wide range of possible motions, as well as a distinctive ability to learn by using feedback loops to improve and attain higher levels of performance.

Thus, continually improved, more advanced Flippy versions keep getting deployed to new restaurants. The reviews are glowing, describing how an in-house Flippy takes over all the work required for an entire fry station. Using an AI-enabled viewer, Flippy identifies the foods needed for an order, picks them, and then cooks them in designated fry baskets (e.g., fries in one, onion rings in the other). After the appropriate amount of time in oil, Flippy removes the perfectly cooked, crispy menu items to a holding area where they can be kept warm until consumers take them.

Miso has another robot available too, called Flippy Wings, that—you guessed it—makes wings. Chipotle is testing a tortilla chip–making robot, also manufactured by Miso. Miso’s coffee robot, CookRight Coffee, is being tested at Panera; this one uses AI to regulate the coffee temperature and volume, along with predictive analysis to tell Panera what its customers are likely to want on a Tuesday versus a Sunday, or at 8:00 a.m. versus 8:00 p.m.

Noting these astounding capabilities, Panera employees have expressed some apprehension about what CookRight Coffee will mean for their own jobs. They may be right to be worried, but in expressing such concerns, they highlight another difference provided by the technology. As Panera’s chief digital officer explained, the CookRight robots are not only efficient and inexpensive, but they also do not call in sick or show signs of anxiety or stress during busy times. At the same time, the executive sought to reassure workers that Panera did not think of adding the robots “as cost savings or a defense against the labor market at all.”

Still, there’s no sign of a slowdown in the appetite for robot restaurant workers, among both the restaurant chains that purchase them and the investors who try to predict future performance. Miso is now valued at $500 million, has raised $50 million in investments, and has a brand new partnership with Amazon Web Services that will let it do more tests more quickly, to scale up its business. That means more robots in more restaurants, coming soon.

So the next question you might be asking is: How can I get one of these coffee robots in my house already? The answer is not clear currently, but “We’ve seen an ever-increasing tidal wave of demand,” Miso Robotics CEO Mike Bell said. “And it’s not going away.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Why would a restaurant want to use a robot instead of a human worker, for some tasks?
  2. How should Miso market its robots to restaurants that might want to adopt them? That is, what advantages should it highlight?
  3. How should frontline restaurant workers respond to the addition of robots into restaurant kitchens?
  4. In what other retail settings are robots likely to appear in coming years? What other tasks might the perform in restaurants?

Source: Amelia Lucas, “Panera Bread Is Testing Automated Coffee Brewing with Miso Robotics,” CNBC, April 12, 2022; Mary Meisenzahl, “Robots Are Taking Jobs Flipping Burgers and Making Smoothies as Automation Invades Fast Food–See How They Work,” Business Insider, April 21, 2022; Vanessa Bates Ramirez, “Flippy the Fast Food Robot Just Got Hired in 100 Restaurants,” SingularityHub, February 17, 2022; Vanessa Bates Ramirez, “New Burger Robot Will Take Command of the Grill in 50 Fast Food Restaurants,” SingularityHub, March 8, 2017, “Miso Robotics Announces Collaboration with AWS to Test Robots at Scale,” Cision PR Newswire, June 7, 2022