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Robot Revolution

Carolyn Jung | July 6, 2017 | Food & Drink Story News and Features Eat and Drink

Read more from the Feast Issue here.

Gordon can make
a foamy cafe latte in less than a minute. Little Toro can take a ball of dough and flatten it into a perfect round of pizza crust in 5 seconds. And Sally—whose résumé touts skills such as precision and productivity—can toss together a multitude of ingredients for an impeccable salad in 60 seconds, no matter what time of day or night. These three also never take vacation days, complain about working overtime or ever ask for a raise.

Employees who are too good to be true? More like employees who are not living or breathing, but robots. Get ready for the newest food-service transformation—the rise of the machines.

Meet Gordon, the so-nicknamed robot barista at Cafe X, billed as the first robotic cafe in the United States, which opened in San Francisco’s Metreon in January. Little Toro is one of seven robots creating Sgt. Pepperoni and Pineapple Express pies at Mountain View’s Zume, which started delivering its novel baked-en-route pizzas last year. And Sally is the star salad-making robot, developed last year by Redwood City’s Chowbotics. Sally is already in operation—churning out the Silicon Valley Salad (seared chicken breast, kale, bell peppers, olives, crunchy wontons and honey mustard dressing) and other variations—at Cooley law firm in Palo Alto, GSVlabs in Redwood City and Galvanize in San Francisco. In August, customers at the Market A Go-Go portion of Calafi a Café in Palo Alto will get to try it out for themselves. Sally will be front and center, dispensing five different salad bowls, which is apropos since chef-owner Charlie Ayers was hired as Chowbotics’ executive chef this spring, helping to develop the robot’s recipes.

Adding to this changing landscape are the Palo Alto and Cupertino outposts of the Japanese chain Yayoi, where patrons sit down and order their set rice meals, not through their server, but on a digital tablet. Eatsa, founded by David Friedberg, former corporate development and business project manager for Google, one-ups that by doing away with servers altogether. At its cafes in San Francisco and Berkeley, customers punch in their orders on an iPad, pay by credit card only and pick up their quinoa bowl at a cubby that lights up with their name on it. Human delivery people might one day become obsolete too, thanks to Starship Technologies, a London-based startup created by two Skype co-founders, Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis. They have created a fleet of 40-pound, six-wheeled self-driving delivery robots that DoorDash is now testing on streets in Sunnyvale and around the Peninsula to ferry restaurant food orders to customers. Similarly, South San Francisco’s Dispatch, which raised $2 million in seed funding led by Menlo Park’s Andreessen Horowitz, is testing its own delivery robot in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Automation has been around since the advent of processed foods. But assembly lines rolling out candy bars, packaged cereals and frozen potpies are usually kept behind production doors. What makes this new era different is the advent of smaller, more relatively affordable robots that now may come face-to-face with consumers whenever they eat or drink. For some, it’s a thrilling development. For others, perhaps, a little chilling. In fact, a recent survey by OpenTable of more than 4,700 diners nationwide found that 68 percent don’t like automation, including robots taking orders or preparing food in restaurants, because it takes away from the hospitality experience.

But Ayers says robots in food service are here to stay, so we ought to get used to it. “If we practiced medicine like we did 100 years ago, we’d all be dead. If we practiced hospitality like we did 100 years ago, we’d all still be standing in line, hungry,” says Ayers, no stranger to technology, having been Google’s first executive chef. “We’re able to advance, thanks to technology. One service sector may go away, but another will develop. Maybe there will be more robot repairmen now.”

There’s little doubt that automation could have profound effects on food service. After all, nearly 1 in 10 American workers are employed in the restaurant industry, according to the National Restaurant Association, numbering 14.7 million employees, a figure expected to grow to 16.3 million by 2027. A 2016 McKinsey Global Institute analysis found that in the hospitality and food service sectors, the potential for automation is 75 percent. Indeed, in “The Future of Employment,” a 2013 study on how susceptible jobs are to computerization, two Oxford University researchers ranked 702 occupations according to their probability of being automated in the next decade or two. According to the study, executive chefs may be less susceptible because they manage people, but servers and short-order cooks have a 94 percent probability of being computerized; and restaurant cooks, a 96 percent probability.

Consider that San Francisco’s stealthy Momentum Machines has reportedly already built a hamburger-making robot that can grill a patty; add lettuce, tomato, pickles and onions; and plop it all onto a bun—at the rate of about 400 hamburgers per hour. It’s rumored to be opening a restaurant in San Francisco in the near future. In an article published by The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Alexandros Vardakostas, co-founder of Momentum Machines, was quoted as saying, “Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient. It’s meant to completely obviate them.”

In a region like the Bay Area, where affordable housing is so virtually nonexistent that restaurateurs are challenged to staff their establishments because workers still can’t afford to live here despite a rising minimum wage, the appeal of robots becomes even clearer. Even so, Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Center United, an organization dedicated to improving working conditions for restaurant workers, is optimistic that robotics can help the industry. She just doesn’t appreciate politicians and corporations dangling the threat of more automation over workers who seek higher wages. “When it comes to automation, there’s a good way and a bad way,” she says. “The bad way is saying you’re going to use it to replace unskilled workers—because I don’t agree with the assumption that workers do unskilled jobs. Bussers provide skilled labor. Every job in the industry is skilled. But there are ways that tech can uplift the skill and dignity of workers, and improve their well-being, like when some mechanization makes the work easier.”

That’s what Chowbotics founder Deepak Sekar was after when he created Sally. An avid home-cook, he was frustrated that cooking involved 10 percent creativity and 90 percent chopping and stirring. So, Sekar, the former director of Rambus Labs, first created a curry-making robot that he and his wife used at home. When Cosme Fagundo, the owner of more than a dozen McDonald’s in the San Jose area, got wind of that, he suggested Sekar instead make a salad-making robot with broader appeal. Fagundo ended up investing in it, along with such notable venture capital sources as Techstars and Foundry, the company behind Fitbit and 3-D printers, to a total tune of $6.3 million. Sekar even hired Rich Page, who worked alongside Steve Jobs and was a co-founder of NeXT Computer, to be his executive chairman.

Inside Sally are 21 different refrigerated canisters of ingredients. Unlike a restaurant salad bar, ingredients are never touched by the customers. And unlike a cook eyeballing amounts, Sally has a weight sensor to dispense each ingredient within a 5 percent error. Chowbotics leases Sally to companies for $500 to $700 a month, with each company determining the prices of the salads offered. “Sally is the most economical cafeteria you can get,” Sekar says. Plus, there is that one-upmanship factor. “We had one well-known company tell us that having a robot like this is cool, and that if they had a robot in their cafe and Google didn’t, then they would be cooler than Google.”

Sally still needs human handlers—people to actually clean and chop the ingredients that go inside. And the robot isn’t as dexterous as a human. It can’t handle avocado slices—they get stuck in the chambers—so it offers them mashed like guacamole instead. It also can’t parcel out hard-boiled eggs without breaking them. Gordon, the Mitsubishi assembly-line robot arm reprogrammed to make coffee at the Cafe X kiosk, has its limitations too. Though it offers a choice of premium beans by local roasters, it has a brief menu. If you want almond milk, you have to add it yourself at the condiment counter. Gordon hasn’t yet mastered the art of creating hearts or cute animal faces in latte foam, either.

Then again, Cafe X isn’t designed to replace the personal touch of a favorite barista at the neighborhood coffee shop, says its co-founder Henry Hu, a 23-year-old college dropout: The goal is “to get people really good coffee, and to get it to them more quickly and consistently.” When you udr the app to order a cup of coffee, Cafe X will have it ready within 10 seconds of when you arrive. Hu has taken umbrage at critics who have derided Cafe X, which has garnered $5 million in funding from Khosla Ventures, the Thiel Foundation and other venture capitalists, as a glorified vending machine. “It’s kind of like calling a Tesla a golf cart—just because they’re both electric.”

Zume has already become so integrated into the zeitgeist that its pizzas were featured in an episode of this season’s hit HBO series, Silicon Valley. After raising $23 million in funding, it hired 91 employees and developed seven robots at an average cost of about $100,000 each, which includes hardware, software and stands. While robots squirt on and spread the tomato sauce, humans still need to add the specific toppings to the pizzas before other robots move the pizzas into ovens. Humans also still have to drive the six trucks that feature onboard ovens to bake the pizzas just before arriving at their delivery destinations around the Peninsula.

But co-founder and co-CEO Julia Collins says Zume, which now delivers more than 2,000 pizzas a week, was never intended to be a fully automated pizza company. “We think about how we can make pizza-making a better job for humans because it’s safer and less boring,” she says. “We think about how we can have record-fast production and delivery. We only want to use automation where it makes sense strategically. One thing we do love about robots is that they are easy to use; they are heavy duty, used to heavy volume and can pick up heavy things.” In this day and age, where “artisan” and “handcrafted” are highly prized attributes, will robots eventually supplant that with food that is rather soulless? Collins doesn’t think so. She points to the fresh asparagus and dry-farmed local tomatoes for Zume’s $10 to $20 pizzas made with 24-hour fermented dough. “That’s all about romantic and handmade,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean someone has to stick their hands in an 800-degree oven hundreds of times a day.”

At Howie’s Artisan Pizza in Palo Alto, the pizzas are created the time-honored way—all by hand. Kitchen manager Santiago Villarreal has been making Margheritas, Biancos, and prosciutto and arugula pizzas since Howie’s opened eight years ago. While he unabashedly loves what he does, Villarreal doesn’t doubt that a robot could do his job. But do it better? That’s an entirely different question. “Robots don’t get tired. They don’t have families to worry about,” he says. “But they don’t have passion. I tell my guys that if you make the pizza with love, people will enjoy it. That makes all the difference.”

Originally published in the July/Aug issue of Silicon Valley

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