The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Robots and Your (Fast) Food

Robots and Your (Fast) Food

Shoppers and Trends

November 26, 2013

Imagine the ability to produce 360 hamburgers per hour that are made to order, custom and cooked with the perfect char while keeping in all the juices. Then imagine that the line chef and the grill chef are not employees, but rather machines that are designed to work the kitchen in the most efficient way possible. No, this is not an episode of Battlestar Gallactica. This is the future of fast food. 

The future, believe it or not, is already here. One company, the San Francisco-based Momentum Machines, has developed a device that replaces all of the hamburger line cooks in a restaurant, enabling the restaurant to offer gourmet quality burgers at fast food prices. Currently, one of the device’s top features is that it can slice and dice toppings like tomatoes and pickles immediately before the burger is compiled, adding to the burger’s freshness. Future versions of this device will even offer custom meat grinds.

Yet another robot, invented by Beijing restaurant owner Cui Runguan, makes noodles from scratch for Chinese restaurants. The robot costs about 30,000 yuan ($4,800 U.S. dollars) less than an employee would, and makes the noodles continuously, without getting tired. Meanwhile, Japanese company Suzumo invented a line of sushi-making robots that can produce 300 medium-sized sushi rolls in an hour. They debuted the product at last year’s World Food and Beverage Great Expo in Tokyo to considerable fanfare. While the machines still require humans to help run them (humans place fish and other ingredients on the rice beds formed by the machine), the need for a sushi-making labor force is greatly reduced.

Devices like these not only save money in labor costs, but they are also more sanitary and more consistent. And if money can be saved in labor, then more money can be spent on higher quality ingredients.

But what about the human work force? According to the National Restaurant Association, there are 13.1 million employees working in the industry domestically, and that number is expected to increase – not decrease – to 14.4 million by 2023. And, they say, while technology is expected to play a greater role in restaurants in the coming years, it won’t replace the “human” factor that is an essential part of the restaurant experience.

“Incorporating technology in restaurant operations helps to enhance both operational efficiency and the customer experience, as front-of-the-house staff can focus even more on guest interaction and service,” says Hudson Riehle, Senior Vice President of Research and Knowledge at the National Restaurant Association. 

Automation has been making its way into all sectors of the food business for years now. At the restaurant level, franchises from McDonald’s to Umami Burger are installing order touch screens at thousands of locations worldwide. On farms, machines pick fruits and vegetables, and even milk cows, helping to produce food more efficiently and under more controlled, traceable conditions. For many farmers who have had to deal with increasingly challenging immigrant laws and a shrinking labor force, machines have become critical to their survival. 

Take the newly introduced strawberry-picking robot in Japan, for example. The device, developed at Shibuya Seiki, an agricultural machinery maker, can pick a piece of fruit every eight seconds. The developer claims that the machine is capable of harvesting two-thirds of the strawberries nightly, leaving the remaining third for the farmers to pick in the morning. While many strawberry growers prefer manual harvesting because quality is generally better and yields are higher, this invention could prove revolutionary if it is economical to roll out and is skilled in mimicking a farmworker labor force.

“From a technical standpoint, much of food preparation, and especially fast food, is really a form of just-in-time manufacturing,” says Martin Ford, founder of a Silicon Valley-based software development firm and the author of the book The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future. “It seems inevitable that the fast food and beverage industries will eventually be invaded by the same robotic and automation technologies that are already transforming manufacturing. If robots can be used to assemble precision electronics, then they can certainly also be used to produce hamburgers and lattes.” 

However, no one expects robots to completely replace humans – at least not in the United States. In fact, one of the reasons cited for the failure of UK Tesco’s American chain Fresh & Easy was the lack of the so-called “human” touch. The Lempert Report said in April 2013 that “the store lacks the empathy and emotion of a Trader Joe’s, Wegman’s or Publix. Or even the nearby Vons,” and that the research done on how consumers shop in this country “obviously didn’t translate very well.”