Coronavirus Pandemic Feeds Demand for Robot Cooks

The coronavirus pandemic is feeding demand for robots that can flip burgers, make salads and blend smoothies, as businesses and consumers seek to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

Robot food service was a trend before the coronavirus pandemic struck, as hospitals, campus cafeterias and others tried to meet demand for fresh, customized options 24-hours-a-day while keeping labor costs in check.

Now, some say, robots may shift from being a novelty to a necessity.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says the risk of getting Covid-19 from handling or consuming food outside the home is low.

Still, there have been numerous outbreaks among restaurant employees and patrons.

“This is the only way you can actually offer a completely contactless and safer for experience to consumers,” says Vipin Jain, co-founder and CEO of Blendid, a Silicon Valley startup.

“So, God forbid, next time there is a pandemic, you can maintain the business continuity. You can keep offering food service without shutting down.”

Blendid sells a robot kiosk that makes a variety of fresh smoothies.

Customers can order from a smartphone app and tweak the recipe if they want more kale or less ginger, for example.

Once or twice a day, a Blendid employee refills the ingredients.

Only a handful are now operating around San Francisco, but since the pandemic began, Blendid has started contract discussions with hospitals, corporations, shopping malls and groceries.

Starting this fall, the White Castle burger chain will test a robot arm that can cook burgers, French fries and other foods.

The robot, dubbed Flippy, is made by Pasadena, California-based Miso Robotics.

“Since the pandemic, the potential for this technology and also the demand for it has increased exponentially,” says Buck Jordan, CEO and co-founder of Miso Robotics.

“Robots offer safer cooking environments. They keep speed of production going, especially when you’re in a reduced staff environment.”

Jordan says fast food restaurants are already having trouble finding workers, due in part to a shrinking population of young workers.

Flippy currently costs $30,000, with a $1,500 monthly service fee.

By the middle of next year, Miso hopes to offer the robot for free, but charge a higher monthly fee.

White Castle and Miso have been discussing a partnership for about a year.

When Covid-19 struck, those talks accelerated, White Castle vice president Jamie Richardson says.

Richardson says the robot can free up employees for other tasks, like disinfecting tables or handling the rising number of delivery orders.

A touch-free environment that minimizes contact is also increasingly important to customers, he says.

“It’s actually something we don’t view as a replacement for workers. We look at it as an empowerment for the team, because it helps us free up our heart for hospitality,” he says.

As salad bars shut down, California-based Chowbotics started getting more inquiries about Sally, a robot about the size of a refrigerator that makes a variety of salads and bowls.

Sally lets customers choose from 22 prepared ingredients stored inside the machine.

It can make around 65 bowls a day before kitchen workers need to refill the ingredients.

Prior to this year, Chowbotics had sold around 125 of its $35,000 robots, primarily to hospitals and colleges. But since the coronavirus hit, sales have jumped more than 60 percent, claims CEO Rick Wilmer.

Hospital and college demand dropped, but Chowbotics is hearing from grocery stores, senior living communities and even the U.S. Department of Defense, he says.

“It’s food automation, and it’s definitely coming,” says Wilmer.

“And Covid’s going to accelerate it again because people are concerned with human beings being involved with their food and the spread of disease.”

Wilmer says Sally may actually create jobs, since it keeps selling food at times of day when it wouldn’t have been available before.

Max Elder, research director of the Food Futures Lab at the Palo Alto, California-based Institute for the Future, is skeptical about the future of food prep robots once the pandemic has eased.

He also believes the consumers’ appetite for food automation is limited.

“When we automate away the act of cooking, preparing, presenting, sharing food, I deeply believe that we lose a lot that’s inherent to that meal, to that experience,” he says.

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