Flippy prepares hamburgers, Chippy prepares fries and Rémy serves salads. Customers may not even notice them, but robots are becoming more and more common behind the counter in fast food kitchens.
At Food Republic, a Vancouver fast-food joint, Rémy looks like a giant stainless steel box. Inside, he is ordered to distribute each ingredient of the salad. The cucumbers fall through a tube into a takeout bowl, which then moves along a conveyor belt to collect the next topping.
Ashkan Mirnabavi is co-founder of Canadian robotics startup Cibotica, which designed Remy using artificial intelligence and machine learning. He describes it as an automated assembly line that can produce up to 300 salads per hour. “Every ingredient is dispensed with precision and accuracy using this core technology,” he said.
A former restaurateur himself, Mirnabavi said Remy could help businesses create consistency, reduce customer wait times and reduce labor costs by 33%. Cibotica allows customers to “hire” Rémy for a monthly fee and he said demand is promising.
“We have received many inquiries and orders from companies in the United States and Canada.”
Rémy is far from being the only robot in fast food kitchens. As companies grapple with staffing shortages and look to cut costs, more large chains are turning to automation to produce food faster and more cheaply.
Robots on the rise
Since the pandemic, fewer people want to work in the fast-paced, demanding jobs on the front lines of the restaurant industry.
By 2021, more than 250,000 restaurant workers had left their jobs to find a new career, according to a report from the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives.
Faced with this staff shortage, labor costs have also increased. Companies have been looking for solutions to fill this void, and many are designed to replace human workers on the assembly line.
Domino’s is currently testing a pizza machine at one of its locations in Berlin. White Castle set up giant mechanical arms to flip burgers (nicknamed Flippy) and cook fries (Chippy) across the United States. In a pilot restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas, almost all robots serve McDonald’s customers.
American salad store Sweetgreen is going all out. By 2023, CEO Jonathan Neman told investors he expects every site to be automated within five years.
Making Fast Food Faster
Chipotle Mexican Grill is also on board and testing a few options that could be rolled out to its Canadian locations later this year.
“They can accomplish the same task over and over again with a very high degree of efficiency and success,” said Curt Garner, Chipotle’s chief technology officer.
The Californian company is testing a machine called Autocado. It cuts, deseeds and scoops avocados, allowing you to serve a batch of guacamole in half the usual time. There are plans to add machine learning capabilities to Autocado that will ultimately help it evaluate the quality of lawyers without human assistance.
Garner said workers are then freed to focus on less repetitive tasks, moving to other roles in the kitchen or in customer service.
Garner said the job will become easier so remaining staff can spend more time interacting with customers. He doesn’t expect robots to replace all of Chipotle’s workers, because there are some things machines can’t do.
“They don’t learn like humans. They don’t adapt as well to changes in an environment.”
Although the technology remains expensive, fast-food chains are beginning to evaluate the benefits of having staff who can work around the clock and not call in sick. Garner said equipment like Autocado will pay for itself in one to two years.
Restaurant Jobs Are Ready to Be Automated
Restaurants have traditionally lagged other industries in introducing industrial robots, even though they could potentially replace 82 percent of jobs, according to a forecast from industry consultant Aaron Allen & Associates. Some experts suggest the workforce is on track to shrink permanently.
Dr. Robin Yap, professor of management at George Brown College, said that while technology will drive innovation opportunities, he cautioned that it is crucial that employers plan to reskill their employees.
Yap suggested that companies could move human workers into more customer-facing roles or into management positions. They could also provide technical training to employees.
“Maybe now they become the technicians of the robots because at the end of the day, you need maintenance. I mean, they’re machines, they don’t work forever,” he said.
Yap predicted that robots will become ubiquitous in just a few years, although he said that throughout history, the workforce has been able to adapt to disruption.
“When we had a typewriter, when we had the telephone…all of those things changed work. So it’s not new that there will be changes where…humans are needed.”
With files from Laura MacNaughton