E&S Extra

Editorial Director Joe Carbonara provides insights and commentary on the state of the foodservice equipment and supplies marketplace.


The Robot Revolution

Ever since meeting Rosie the Robot on The Jetsons back in the fall of 1962, Americans have been wondering when robots will become a dominant feature in restaurants. Perhaps that time has finally come.

Joe Carbonara editor hsFor the past few years, most foodservice automation was customer facing and with good reason. Transitioning to app ordering, for example, enabled operators to interact with customers on the guests’ terms. Further, shifting the function of placing orders and collecting payment into the hands of the consumer allowed operators to deploy labor in other ways. With labor being so much more expensive than it was three years ago and significantly harder to find, that type of transition quickly became a business imperative for many operators.

The success of app and kiosk ordering, which includes third-party delivery, seemingly opened operators’ eyes to the possibility of furthering the use of automation and robotics. In fact, several chains started testing robotics. 

For example, White Castle is testing a robotic arm to flip burgers, dump baskets of fries and the like. Early in 2023, it was encouraging to see several chains launching initiatives that could automate certain back-of-the-house functions (page 34). Chili’s is testing a griddle that can cook a steak to order in three minutes or less and a burger in 30 seconds. Chili’s is not alone in this kind of endeavor. Red Robin is looking into potentially replacing its conveyor-belt cooking system with a flattop grill. The chain believes this will enhance food quality, speed of service and more.

Another area where robotics had some success over the past 12 months was in the form of unattended retail. Jamba, for example, partnered with a robotic arm manufacturer to develop smoothie-making kiosks that it went on to deploy in a variety of nontraditional settings, including college campuses, healthcare campuses and more. There was also the debut of a robotic coffee kiosk implemented by two different healthcare operators in Ohio. These examples allow these operators to provide customizable menu options around the clock.

While there’s been undeniable progress of late, widespread adoption continues to face several obstacles. First, implementing robotics remains a costly proposition. That’s why so many of the test cases involve large chains because they are the ones with the deeper pockets and other resources necessary to test and implement such solutions. That leads me to the second point: Applying robotics to a foodservice operation is not as easy as it seems. When implementing any back-of-the-house solution, operators must address countless issues, including food quality, employee safety, maintenance and the overall impact on hospitality. Of those issues, the ability to properly maintain and service the equipment in a timely manner represents, in my opinion, the biggest X factor moving forward.

Despite such challenges, the combination of speed of service, product consistency, the ability to replace labor and, ultimately, generate more sales, should serve as the four pillars of any successful technology initiative. And automation and robotics may become more attainable to smaller and medium sized operators if the return is right. 

If only Rosie the Robot were here to see it.