In a time when we are still wrangling with the thorny concept of ‘alternative facts,’ we may also be experiencing a form of ‘alternative connectedness,’ striving to create a balance between the social and health-safeguarding imperative to remain physically distant and our fundamental human need for contact. And given these two competing drives, it’s logical that we would try to meet our needs by re-conceptualizing what ‘contact’ actually means to us. After all, in a period of massive upheaval, flexibility and hedonic adaptation become significant tools in our ‘survival toolbelt.’ So it’s unsurprising that as the ‘contactless’ juggernaut speeds on, plowing down more of our conventions and traditions, it razes the field for alternative systems to grow. In this first of a two-part article series on automation and the use of artificially intelligent robotics, we examine one industry in which the drive for ‘contactless’ systems is occurring at a surprisingly fast clip: food service. From on demand 3-D printed food to artificially intelligent robotic chefs driven via apps, the food service industry is sizzling with new tech innovation. In today’s first installment, we investigate whether there is a net benefit to these developments and consider the extent to which the automation of retail level food preparation could have a dark side. So grab yourself a Caramel Macchiato or Cold Brew (and perhaps a brace of jelly donuts) and let’s step into the food prep area…
For anyone with even a passing interest in the topic, it is not news that we, in the US, love our coffee. Although sales of caffeinated beverages have taken a hit during the early part of the year, large coffee chains are once again seeing demand rising, as a ‘new normal’ sets in. In a third quarter FY20 earnings report, Starbucks’ President and CEO Kevin Johnson confirmed last month that the company ‘saw meaningful improvements in both sales and profitability as the quarter unfolded [even as] customers are seeking safe, familiar, and convenient experiences in many aspects of their lives.’(1) And while the day to day experience of the iconic beverage chain has transitioned away from that of a ‘community space,’ Starbucks’ pivot has been enabled by technologies that promote a contactless approach to customer service. Noting that ‘Mobile Order and Pay reached a record 22% of transactions in Q3 [and that] the Starbucks Rewards™ loyalty program as a percentage of tender rose four percentage points from a year ago to 46% – above the pre-COVID trend – with year-over-year sales growth from Starbucks Rewards customers turning positive in early July,’ Johnson emphasized that the company’s success lies in meeting customers where they are.(2) And of course, this is increasingly at the curbside.
Or does it? Given some innovations coming down the pipeline, it’s possible that the days of the human coffee professional may be numbered. Take, for instance, two systems that were already gaining traction prior to the advent of COVID-19: Texas-based Briggo Coffee Haus; and b;eat, from South Korea’s Dal.komm. Although the two systems have sprung up seemingly independently, they share a surprising number of similarities. First among them is, of course, the use of robots to prepare customer beverages. The current iteration of the b;eat system (a contraction of ‘best of quality’ and ‘eat,’ according to an article at Daily Coffee News) was developed in collaboration with the KT Corporation, South Korea’s telecoms giant, and is fundamentally an outsized mash-up of industrial robotics technology and a coffee pod. But it is a shockingly efficient one: according to Dal.komm the robot arm within the unit can make ‘as many as 90 coffee-based drinks per hour, while working on as many as 14 drinks simultaneously […crafting] approximately 300 coffee-based drinks before restocking of beans and milk are required.’(3) Furthermore, the units can interface with customers both through a proprietary app and viva voce, allowing those of us who are too brain-fogged before we actually down our first cup of joe to dispense with the app and simply mumble an order instead. (Maybe it’s just us but until that first coffee has kicked in, we just don’t want to do battle with an app…) And if a customer is dealing with the effects of significant caffeine depletion (#Monday) the b;eat system will even go so far as to recommend drinks and answer questions, all with a friendly wave of its unembodied robotic arm.
Briggo, on the other hand, does not sport a friendly wave, but beats the b;eat in terms of speed. In a bijou 40 square feet of floor space, the unit crafts 100 drinks per hour from a menu of a mind-boggling 8.5 million theoretical combinations and, according to the company’s website, the system does all of this with a minimum average wait time of just 2 minutes.(4) Briggo uses the combination of already familiar mobile tech in the form of a custom app and cloud computing to offer an always-on, fully automated, low overhead unit with its own embedded payment platform. All it needs to be up and running is a steady internet connection (10Mbps down and up), a standard 120V AV outlet, and a water supply that can deliver 5 gallons per minute at a pressure of 60psi. Assuming these three conditions are met, as long as an organization – or theoretically an individual – has 40 square feet of unused space, a Briggo coffee maker can be theirs.
If your loyalty is more to Jamba Juice than Starbucks, do robotics and AI have anything to offer you? Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your embrace of automation, the answer is ‘Oh yes, indeed!’ Blendid, for instance, touts itself as ‘the world’s first fully autonomous robotic food kiosk’ that seamlessly blends real food with artificial intelligence. Focusing specifically on the smoothie market, Blendid claims to concoct ‘[h]ealthy, fresh, and delicious food created with culinary excellence, delivered with precision and consistency, to anyone, anywhere, anytime.’(5) And it is using the services of industry advisors to dream up recipes that not only deliver on taste but also on nutrition. Adjunct faculty at UC Berkeley and member of the Culinary Institute of America’s Strategic Initiatives Group, Kristen Rasmussen is tasked with developing plant-based menu items that are microbiome-friendly and stacked with micronutrients and phytochemicals. Along with the usual list of fruits and vegetables, her current libations incorporate ingredients such as avocado, seeds, nuts, berries, leafy greens, coconut, turmeric, and matcha – exactly the sort of nutritionally ‘top shelf’ items that we’ve come to expect in a post-yoga beverage.
Of course, innovation and technology can play both sides of the game, creating healthy options such as smoothies and enabling traditionally not-so-healthy foods like burgers. To wit, Flippy, the automated kitchen assistant that will be debuting in Chicago-area White Castle burger joints. In a partnership with tech start-up Miso Robotics of Pasadena, Calif. White Castle is testing the artificially intelligent Flippy to gauge the extent to which it can prevent the transmission of food-borne pathogens. In an article on CNN Business last month, White Castle’s CEO Lisa Ingram is quoted as saying that Flippy might become one of the ‘solutions that will transform the industry and make the White Castle experience all that it can be for generations to come.’(6) It’s a grandiose claim for what amounts to a $60,000 spatula on a mechanized arm but the attraction of Flippy is its use of 3D optics and thermal imaging to determine the optimal flip time. Using video images of patties on the grill, sensors feed back the status of each item – from raw to partially cooked with suggested removal time measured in seconds. Furthermore, the robot can cook around 150 items per hour and is said to learn from each item flipped. We do wonder, however, how much new data can be gleaned after the first couple of hundred burger flips, or perhaps we are underestimating Flippy’s career ambition…
In the case of products such as burgers where you have an enhanced opportunity for pathogen contamination from the raw meat, oils, etc. adherence to strict safety procedures is critically important. Nowhere in the literature have we as yet uncovered information regarding Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) protocols pertaining to Flippy, Blendid, et al but we do have to assume that they have the correct GMPs, HACCP, and others in place. We are reassured, however, at the statement by Shawn LePean, Vice President of Business Development at Blendid, who framed their approach as a consideration of priorities: ‘We’ve updated our protocols for kiosk cleaning and food handling in the post-COVID world to meet or exceed the requirements of the local health department and NSF International. Our top priority is protecting the safety of our customers and workers, and we had this goal in mind while updating those protocols. We’re also proud to say our autonomous robotic kiosk operates in a contained and sanitary environment, and consumers can see all of the robot’s actions as it prepares and serves blends and self-cleans.’(7)
And it is reassuring that LePean makes reference in this statement to NSF International. Founded in 1944 as the National Sanitation Foundation, NSF International cut its organizational teeth on developing sanitation standards for equipment used in soda fountains and in luncheonettes of the 1950s. From those early beginnings, it journeyed through the certification of wastewater treatment facilities, bottled water standards, product safety in food, beverage, packaging, and animal feeds, and also a testing and certification program for dietary supplements. Creating collaborations with international partners and acquiring strategic assets along the way, NSF International now focuses on testing, certification, training, and standards development in multiple industries and across a breadth of service areas and aims to ‘develop uniform, consensus-based national standards, we bring together regulators, industry, consumers and public health experts. Our scientists, engineers and public health professionals test to these standards or protocols.’(8) Leveraging the expertise of a long-standing organization like NSF International would certainly seem to add guardrails to Blendid’s consumer and employee safety protocols, so let us hope that the company is not alone in this endeavor.
While the pre-pandemic incentive was the minimization of cost through enhanced efficiency, the impetus now is more about reducing viral transmission via increased physical distancing in the kitchen. Where one robotic arm can – tirelessly – do the work of multiple human workers, often scarce kitchen ‘real estate’ becomes a lot more available. And it does free up those human workers to perform other tasks. There are arguments for and against this push to free workers from the shackles of repetitive manual labor but in most ways they extend beyond the scope of our discussion today. And whether we are wary of the rise of the robot or excited to embrace the promise of new technology, we have to accept that ‘they’ walk among us. That is to say that they roll, shuffle, squat in 40 sq/ft, or maybe just wave their robot arms at us, but certainly they are here and are on the increase.
And this leads to the correlated, but presently unaddressed question of what will become of this innovation once the current danger is passed. As much as we all hanker to return to our pre-pandemic lifestyles – quitting our own kitchens to enjoy restaurant dining once more, cheering our teams at sporting events, enjoying a night at the movies with a shared bucket of popcorn – will social recovery disrupt this disruptive technology? In other words, will there still be room for Blendid and b;eat and Briggo in a post post-COVID world? Blendid’s LePean believes the transition from human worker to artificially intelligent robot is a one-way street: ‘New-age robotics are a great option for food service providers, because they allow you to address the customer concerns of today while also activating new areas of opportunity.’(9)
And new areas of opportunity are exactly what has historically propelled this country forward. Although the marriage of automation and technology is, in some sectors, considered a killer of jobs, it is also the engine that drives change. Displacing the Pony Express, Samuel Morse’s telegraph system finally led to the creation of the USPS. Hand-building an experimental vehicle in 1896 led Henry Ford to create the first manufacturing assembly line for cars in 1913: fast forward one century and now the behemoth Ford Motor Company manufactured ‘about 2.8 million units sold in the [North America] region in 2019.’(10) Similar examples of social and economic development through automation and technology are so numerous as to not require extensive listing here but the point is that progress in itself is disruptive. It poses challenges, sounds death knells, and ushers new life into the world, all at the same time. It represents an inevitable constant, an inescapable truism, and a responsibility that we owe to future generations.
And it is arguably the only meaningful path forward.
Progress or threat? How do you interpret the drumbeat of automation in the foodservice industry? Do you prefer contactless encounters or do you yearn for human interaction? Let us know in the comments and come back again to read more in the second part of this discussion.