Food
6 minute read - Apr 08, 2021

Almost the Jetsons – Automation and the Food Industry

How America’s hunger for faster, safer, more reliable service is pushing the food industry towards increased automation.
Marshall Pierce
Enterprise Partnerships

If you're a fan of early- to mid-20th century movies, you can probably recall a scene or two that takes place in a New York City automat.

The actors place a coin in what looks like a giant vending machine and then lift a small window to remove their meal selection. In some films, like 1962's "That Touch of Mink," starring Doris Day and Cary Grant, you also can get a good look at the kitchen workers who work behind the scenes refilling the window slots with fresh food.

Inspired by a German restaurant concept, the American company Horn & Hardart opened the first of their automated cafeteria-style restaurants in Philadelphia in 1902. At one point, there were 40 Horn & Hardart automats in New York City alone.

In the late 1950s, the company's East 42nd Street automat became almost as popular a tourist attraction as the Empire State Building. Each year, about five million diners placed nickels in the slots and opened windows to get their food and beverages. However, mainly due to stiff competition from fast food restaurants, the last automat closed in 1991.

Automation is nothing new to restaurants, but as the industry aims to rebound from the pandemic, it may be just what fuels the growth. Let's take a look at some of the technology trends that are moving the restaurant industry forward.

1. Autonomous food delivery. Food delivery apps are here to say, and the industry is looking more and more to robotics to meet the demand for quick delivery.

DoorDash began introducing delivery robots long before the pandemic. A 2019 article in robotics.org describes the small, friendly-looking robots created by Starship Technologies as "designed to make short-distance deliveries of small orders, the kinds of jobs that human delivery personnel don't want."

Starship Technologies use of robots is just one example of how automation is quickly taking over the food industry.

Image courtesy of Starship Technologies' blog

As it looks to further position itself in the post-COVID world, DoorDash acquired Chowbotics, a salad-making robot startup, in February 2021. Chowbotics uses Sally, a rectangular salad vending machine, to help customers create customizable salads, poke bowls, and snacks. The robot is already in use in universities, hospitals, and grocery stores. Industry experts believe the Chowbotics machines are most likely to fit the ghost kitchen model.

Since the early days of COVID-19, KiwiBot has been testing its robots in the Los Angeles area. In a January 2021 interview with dot.LA, Felipe Chavez, Kiwibot's founder and CEO, predicts that about 400 of his company's robots will be delivering food orders in L.A. by the end of the year.

"We trust L.A. to be the best new market for us because the food delivery habit is already there, and we feel backed to scale in an organized and socially responsible and sustainable manner," David Rodriguez, Kiwibot's head of business, says in the article.

In March, Chipotle Mexican Grill announced it has invested in Nuro, a California company that operates self-driving, robotic vehicles. The fast-casual chain is hoping to capitalize on the 174% growth it saw in digital orders in 2020 over 2019. About half of those digital sales came from delivery orders.

 2. Cleaning robots! As more and more people are fully vaccinated and return to in-person dining, many still will have lingering concerns about restaurant cleanliness.

Forward-thinking restaurant owners and managers are looking to robots to complete important but time-consuming deep cleaning tasks. New disinfecting robots that use ultraviolet light technology to kill surface microorganisms may be the answer.

According to Ava Robotics, one of its robots can disinfect 4,000 square feet of warehouse space in 30 minutes. An Ava robot can be used in both small and large spaces, but since UV light can be harmful to humans, it can operate autonomously when no one is around. You can see one of Ava's robots in action with one of their demo videos.

"UV light reaches places that are really hard to clean and disinfect with traditional cleaning, and it doesn't leave any residue," Ava's CEO Youssef Saleh tells foodableltv.com in an interview. "There are no chemicals left behind."

He adds, "Instead of thinking of the restaurant, think of the whole chain—all the way from the warehouse, to the kitchen, to the front of house."

3. Automated servers. If the idea of a robot coming to your restaurant table to serve you food makes you imagine Rosie of "The Jetsons" cartoon TV show, you should know that image is way closer to reality than you might think.

A restaurant in the small town of Renesse in the Netherlands introduced new robot waiters last year as a way to reduce human contact during the pandemic. The red-and-white robots greet customers, serve food, and clear dishes.

Image courtesy of Royal Palace Instagram

"We are often busy and cleaning tables, and the robots give us an extra hand," says restaurant owner Leah Hu in an interview with theverge.com. "We are not disappearing. We are still here. They will always need people in this industry."

Robotic servers are nothing new to China. Restaurants in that country have been using robots since before the pandemic. And Tim Worthington of servicerobots.com recently told restaurantmagazine.com that his company has seen unprecedented interest in their robotic waiters since the pandemic began.

Images courtesy of businessinsider.com

4. Self-checkouts. The self-checkout lane is not just for supermarkets anymore. As post-COVID diners continue their demand for quick service, self-checkouts are sure to gain steam. Just like how grocery stores have adopted user friendly UIs by the use of pictures, so too will ordering food in restaurants follow suit. Companies like HungryHungry even utilize QR codes at the table to facilitate ordering and reduce server interaction.

McDonald's reported a 30% increase in order value after introducing self-checkouts at some of its stores. Self-checkout lanes also speed up ordering and improve order fulfillment accuracy, according to industry research.

McDonald's has been on the fast-track with other new technology as well. Now in the middle of renovating its U.S. stores with digital menu boards and self-order kiosks, the chain recently acquired Apprente, a Silicon Valley company that uses artificial intelligence to understand drive-thru orders.

The restaurant chain also bought Dynamic Yield, a decision logic technology company, in 2019. With this technology, McDonald’s can change its drive-thru menus based on time of day, weather, traffic, and customer order preferences.

5. Domo-Arigato Mr Chef Robato. With robotic food delivery and robotic waiters, can robochefs be far behind? Nope.

Image courtesy of ouest-france.fr

Robotic chefs won't be completely replacing their human counterparts any time soon. However, many restaurants are already using A.I. for tasks like making pizza dough, mixing cocktails, and preparing hamburgers.

Here's an example. The French company Pazzi developed the pizza-making robot that does its thing in "Pazziria," a restaurant that is located near Disneyland Paris. Diners make their selections at self-service consoles and then watch robots spreading the sauce, adding the toppings, placing the pizza in the oven, slicing it, and boxing it.

Here in this country, a company called Creator boasts that its robotics are "capable of creating a meal in elegant, previously thought impractical ways" with "perfect patties, sauces, and seasonings measured in ways you probably don't even care about. But we do."

So robots can build a better cheeseburger, it seems. In fact, scientists who study emerging technologies have identified many routine tasks and jobs that will be handled by robots in the not-too-distant future - everything from manufacturing, to shipping, to taxis. This trend in food is not unique.

Snappr, the largest on-demand photography company in the US, is leading the charge in combining the best of both worlds - leveraging automation, machine learning, and logistics software with skilled (human!) photographers to provide professional photography at scale. Snappr enterprise customers can book thousands of shoots at the touch of a button, then communicate, catalog and distribute those photos on a class-leading technology platform. Snappr also offers a class-leading API that lets customers book and deliver photos from their own CRM. In fact, Snappr has already photographed the menus at 1 in 6 US restaurants - there’s a very good chance you have ordered food from your favorite delivery platform because a Snappr photographer was on-site taking the photo.

Today’s dining market, whether you make the food or deliver it, is a competitive business. Raise your conversion rates with professional food photography, and make it easy on yourself - automate with Snappr for Enterprise.

About the author

Marshall Pierce
Enterprise Partnerships

Marshall Pierce leads partnerships for enterprise Food clients at Snappr. He has helped dozens of major players in the industry with their content strategy. He is available for a no-obligation consultation about your Food photography needs.

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