"I do think that as the technology improves, and as there's fancier machine learning like automation, robotics and techniques to handle these food items, we're gonna grow into other categories, but it is important to note that like coffee and pizza and burgers, all of these things that have already been automated are already a huge industry. Like on any given day, 14% of America eats pizza, right? So the early technology is going to chase the industries that makes sense, and eventually we'll have more and more capability to produce other foods."
– Benson Tsai, CEO and Co-Founder, Stellar Pizza
In this episode
The robots have arrived… and are ready to make you a cheeseburger?
Automation in the food service industry is nothing new, but the applications and methods available for food preparation and delivery are quickly advancing.
From next generation vending machines and touch screen ordering to robotic fryers, pizza and boba tea, infusion of automation and robotics is starting to happen at every level of the quick-service food sector. Haven’t experienced it yet? It’s likely a matter of time.
In this episode of Changing Places, host Mariam Sobh discusses the future of robotics in the food industry with guests Jake Brewer, Chief Strategy Officer at Miso Robotics, Darian Ahler, CEO at Bobacino, and Benson Tsai, CEO and Co-Founder at Stellar Pizza.
- 3:18 – Darian Ahler shares how we can trace the rise of convenience, quick service, and vending machines back to the early 1900s.
- 11:56 – Jake Brewer discusses how robots can help increase efficiency and remove human error with critical food service work like food allergy segregation.
- 13:49 – Benson Tsai highlights cost reductions that can occur because of automation in the food industry.
Click here to expand transcript
Speaker 1 [00:00] How do I feel about the robots making the food? For me, I think that it's efficient for the most part. I wouldn't be too much opposed to it if there's like some kind of ingredient or perhaps something that they could do to better the quality, I don't know if a robot would be able to make those detailed decisions.
Speaker 2 [00:23] In terms of my food actually being made, I don't have a problem with who's making it in terms of actual restaurant experience, part of the restaurant experience is the people there.
Speaker 3 [00:31] Robots making my food. I mean, biggest thing about food is like the variations and how people experiment and being a foodie, I love that. And robots, I don't think they are at that stage where they can experiment with food. It's more like... it's going to be consistent for sure.
Speaker 4 [00:48] Well, I have a problem with robots because they are replacing humans and they're only as good as a human, but they're getting better all the time. I'm not quite sure if their food would be that delicious because what is a robot's taste buds like?
Mariam Sobh [01:04] When was the last time you stepped into your local burger joint to place an order and you were confronted with a touch screen? Okay, that's new, but you figure it out, place your order, hold the pickles, insert your credit card, and in a matter of minutes someone hands you your order. I'm sure you saw plenty of staff milling around running the cash register or handing out orders like yours. Now imagine that only one member of staff was there to bag your order and hand it to you because all of the cooking was done by robots from start to finish. Yes, the robots are here and they finally learned how to serve humanity a cheeseburger. As we dig deeper into this part of modern society, it's not as straightforward as it sounds.
From the Tipsy Bar in Las Vegas to White Castle's use of robots in their kitchens, automation is now part of the food service game, whether you realized it or not. According to a recent Capterra survey, three quarters of restaurants surveyed are currently using automation in three or more areas of operation. In the same survey, approximately 75% of respondents said chefs and cooks would be difficult to replace with automation. Meanwhile, Chipotle is testing using automation to make its tortillas. Lastly, payments. com notes that fast food restaurants in California are preparing for automation after a new wage law.
Let's dive into this topic with my guest Jake Brewer, a restaurant industry veteran with over 14 years of experience in the realm of industrial operations. Throughout this episode, we'll also hear from Benson Tsai, CEO and co- founder at Stellar Pizza, and Darian Ahler, founder and CEO, Bobacino. Sit back, relax and dig into those wings you ordered from a ghost kitchen operated by robots. I'm Mariam Sobh and this is Changing Places. Before we hear from Jake Brewer, let's hear from Darian Ahler, founder and CEO of Bobacino.
Darian Ahler [03:05] What we're seeing in the sector from 10, 000 feet, really we need to look at the broader food automation industry. In the food industry as a whole, we actually need to go back about a hundred years to the turn of the century. In 1902, there was a company called Horn and Hardart's that launched in New York City that launched the auto map. But it was... essentially like all the cooking was done behind the scenes and you just saw a pane of lockers that you could put in a nickel and you could get a burger or a pie or whatever. But that really gave the rise to what we look at as like the convenience sector, fast food, fast casual, quick serve, split into two locations. It split into what would then become vending machines and then also into fast food.
So you saw the rise of this convenience sector and really changed the way people thought about quality as well, but really what we've seen recently since about the early 2000s is that has further started to bifurcate into these new areas where they intersect each other, where you're seeing automation across the platform. So you're seeing the rise of next generation vending machines that can serve salads and pizza and coffee and tea and burgers. And then you're also seeing delivery come through with the automated deliveries, the last mile with all these little delivery robots. And so you're seeing this infusion of automation at every level of the convenience food market and while it might not be the most ubiquitous thing yet, it's definitely happening kind of across all channels.
Mariam Sobh [04:47] In order to understand how we got here, I'm going to chat with Jake Brewer, a restaurant industry veteran with over 14 years of experience in the realm of industrial operations. He's currently the chief strategy officer of Miso Robotics, a robotics company at the vanguard of robotics in commercial food service. Jake Brewer, welcome to Changing Places.
Jake Brewer [05:07] Hi, thank you so much for having me. This is exciting.
Mariam Sobh [05:10] For most of its history, the restaurant industry has been one where you place an order, someone prepares the food, you eat it, then you move on with your day. From your point of view, how has the shift towards automation over the last two decades or so pushed us into an age where automation has really entered fast and fast casual dining experiences. For example, most McDonald's now have touch screens where you place and pay for an order.
Jake Brewer [05:33] I would say to be maybe even a little critical of the restaurant space, we've been a little bit behind the times, honestly. We are exceptionally good as an industry of meeting customer demand for the thing we do best, which is make food. So as tastes have evolved, you've seen things like veggie burgers, the Impossibles, the Beyond Burgers, those kind of came overnight to meet a really quickly changing appetite for the consumer. But technology has not been the same way. I would like to say that restaurants I was running 14 years ago, or even in high school that I worked in in Louisville would be all too different today, but they're not, they're in essence the same. Whereas the world around us, to say that there's self- driving cars now feels like, oh the future... it's a future's here moment.
I think there's been a pretty hard pivot in how people are thinking about work and where they work and what they do. And it's forced a very quick transition towards automation in the kitchen. Whereas to the question you asked, there's been a lot of, I think step change in front of house, digital menu boards, which sounds maybe like, " Oh, is that just a screen that replaced an old school board that you kind of slid all the numbers into?" Now that's just a click of a button and it gets pushed out to the whole system. So that is advancement, but I would say it was incremental. Now there's big brands doing big things that are going to move us forward. So I would say the next five years will move us further than the last 20 did.
Mariam Sobh [07:08] When did automation first begin to take shape or shift the restaurant sector? And I'm curious to know, was there any pushback from owners and operators to adapt to this quickly? Was it a wait and see approach?
Jake Brewer [07:19] McDonald's has been testing automation since the eighties. Same with brands like Hardee's and Carl's Junior and Burger King. There has been automation attempts. I think the reason the adoption was slow from the owner operator perspective is cost. It was a great test and it probably even had really good applicability, but it was super high to purchase on a cost basis and it was really expensive to maintain. And so there definitely has been some automation in the industry. But the reason why I think now it's exploding is costs have come down considerably and technology is advanced considerably. The entry point is dropping and the ability to deploy is increasing. And so that then for owner operators makes it much more approachable. But it has to be approachable in the context that they're looking for.
And what I mean by that is if you tried to take a huge seismic jump and say like, " Hey, let me try to sell you a fully automated restaurant today," I think that would be too hard to swallow for a lot of us. For the customer, for the industry, for the owner operator. There are dangerous, dirty and dull tasks in the kitchen that you can't staff today because of the labor gap, and if you do have staff in the restaurant, it's the job people don't want to do. The fryer is, in our opinion, just the lowest hanging fruit in this area. It's certainly dangerous, dirty and dull, and it's also highly repetitive. So it's ripe for automation. It literally eliminates the whole, " It's taking someone's job," argument because no one's working that job.
And also all the tangential benefits of perfect food quality and faster speed of service and in certain states it sounds like we do say it tongue in cheek but a robot doesn't get paid over- time. So I think it's kind of that perfect first step for a lot of operators to dip their toe into true future tech in the kitchen.
Mariam Sobh [09:13] Has one sector of the restaurant industry or food service in general been more receptive to automation versus others? Because I can imagine that maybe some places, their slogan is that they make it themselves versus some place that wants efficiency.
Jake Brewer [09:28] Yeah. You hit the nail honestly right on the head. I call it the James Beard argument where they go, " Well I don't know. I have a local restaurant down the road and I just don't ever see them using a robot." I kind of go, " Your local high- end James Beard award- winning restaurant, it's not our market. That's not who we're approaching here." And honestly that category will be and should be slow to adopt for the reasons you're saying. The actual value proposition to the customer is " this is a hand formed baguette, this is a hand tossed fried chicken sandwich," even the things that can be done in fast food or fast casual that are done in a high end restaurant, the human touch is certainly part of it. The uniqueness of each dish is part of the experience. I promise you, no one's going to a QSR restaurant and going now sir madam, was that hand fried or robotically fried?
They won't care. And so that's why you kind of go the fast food and fast casual, those quick service and limited service segments, not the full service, is really where the first large market uptake has been. And that makes all the sense in the world for the exact reason you just said is no one is precious about how their fries were cooked. It's more about were the fries ethically source? Are the fries good quality? Are they seasoned or spiced in a special way? That's what drives the differentiation, not how they were actually cooked, because the secret that's not a secret is it's all in 350 degree oil in a stainless box called a fryer, and that's how it's being cooked. I think every brand will start to, over the course of the next decade, adopt some form of automation or future tech for restaurants, but it'll be very specific to brand identity back to that point. So that's what my guess would be.
Mariam Sobh [11:17] One thing that I was thinking about, I feel like for myself now when I order food, it's like I don't want a person to touch it because I just think of the hygienic aspect. And so I wonder if that's part of the automation thing where it's like you don't have to worry... I don't want to be gross, but you don't have to worry about getting a hair in your food or something like that when it's automated.
Jake Brewer [11:36] Yeah. And you hit the one, right? Hair in food is the number one reason food is sent back across all segments, all industries. And the reality is, yeah there's no... unless we decided to do it for a stylistic reason, we don't put hair on the robots. So it definitely has a really strong bent towards food safety, quality control and then the other piece that I think people don't really talk as much about is food segregation. So there's a lot of allergens out there and we're more aware of them now than ever. So if you have a shellfish allergy, you might need to segregate that really strongly against say the chicken proteins or the fries. And that can be a human error, not because humans are incapable or not as smart, it's actually because there's so many tasks that a human brain can do, some start to fall off, versus the robot is trained and programmed to do tasks.
And it doesn't say, " Well you know what, I'm going to for this one special case, put the shrimp in the wrong fryer or put the shrimp in the other spot where it's not supposed to go." And so because of that, the piece that after we talk about filling that labor gap, after we talk about speed of service and quality, we don't let the conversation go without going, " And by the way, if you have a veg, non- veg menu and you don't want those to cross for vegan reasons, we're really great at that. If you have a halal portion of your menu for religious observances." So I think it's a really intuitive question because that is after we get past this first hurdle, I think that'll be the next thing where there will people that go, " I feel safer." Not because humans are dumb or incapable, but " I feel safer that a robot... this is truly... did they actually mix it in the back of house or did they say it's vegan but they actually fry it in the same thing as protein?" If a robot's doing it, the answer is no.
Mariam Sobh [13:27] Hang tight and we'll be back after we go to Hawthorne, California to hear from Benson Tsai, CEO and co- founder of robot pizza company, Stellar Pizza.
Benson Tsai [13:37] Here I am, on the precipice of launch, with this amazing, amazing technology, amazing, amazing pizza recipe that we have, and I can't wait for people in Los Angeles to try it. If you look at society... kind of if you look at the costs of consumer items or any real item over time, automation and robotics has resulted in lower costs for everything. And so with the costs of food rising, the raw cost of food rising as well as the increased costs of kitchen labor, I think in order for everyone to have access to affordable foods, it was very logical for automation to play a bigger role in food production, not just in the giant food factories, but also at the restaurant level to prepare fresh, delicious, affordable foods. If you open your pantry today, literally everything in there is probably made by a machine. So really as a society we've had access to manufactured foods for a long time.
Mariam Sobh [14:37] Just a reminder, Changing Places is a podcast brought to you by Avison Young that continues to explore and question our complex relationship with the built world around us. I'm your host, Mariam Sobh. I hope you're liking the show so far. If so, please share Changing Places with your friends. Before we get back to my conversation with Jake Brewer of Miso Robotics, let's go back to Brooklyn.
Speaker 9: With automation and jobs, a lot of people are just looking at it as like automation will take away jobs, but once you automate things and people... I think people will find other ways to find new kinds of jobs that only people can do. And maybe those too will be automated in the future, but I think people will find ways around total automation.
Speaker 4: These days, I'm concerned about robots taking over because I was just in a CVS store and there was one cashier, the rest were machines. So all those people lost their jobs. People cannot afford to lose their jobs.
Speaker 2: I'm not really against automating, but I do think that we should figure out a solution before we kind of get to the point where it's automated the way already.
Speaker 3: So if the society progresses in such a way that better alternates to working at a restaurant, a hundred percent are supported because a human being can provide more to the society than just work at a restaurant. But then we have to provide those jobs. So again, it's more like as a society, we are not there yet. Yeah, it's going to be a while.
Darian Ahler [16:13] What we're building is technically difficult and if we're going to go through the process of spending the time and the money and the effort to create a really cohesive solution and then your drink sucks, what's the point, right? Why would we serve something that would have this really great experience that's super complex only to get something and you're like, " Oh, well I guess it was fine." It has to be good across the board and we have to... and part of what we can do with that automation that I think is different than an existing shop is that we are able to build in that consistency. And so the drink is of the same quality and arguably a good quality every single time.
Mariam Sobh [16:53] Now back to my conversation with Jake Brewer, a restaurant industry veteran with over 14 years of experience in the realm of industrial operations. Do you think, Jake, that there will be any obstacles or hiccups that may stall widespread adoption across the sector?
Jake Brewer [17:10] Yeah, gosh, there's certainly hurdles, there's no question. And let's go outside of the normal supply chain. I think that's a problem that the world is going to solve over the coming months. I do see that easing, but adoption into the independent is what I'll highlight. So when you look at the restaurant industry, there is a lot of fanfare, as there should be, around these very large brands, the yums of the world, the Burger Kings of the world, the McDonald's, the inspires, like the Arby's, Buffalo Wild Wings, the Chipotles, they're good at what they're good at for a reason and they're really excellent at replication of their process and replication of their menu. But they're actually the smaller part of the industry. They seem big because you say, " Well there's 7, 200 Burger Kings in the US." Well, but it's those chains and others like them make up 35 to 40% ish of the industry. So the other 60% ish are independence, mom and pops, two, three store chains that are your kind of locals. And it's a big market segment and they have the same needs as the large players.
It's not that they're impervious to labor shortages or food inflation, in fact potentially more so. They can't maybe leverage supply chain as well as the other brands because of scale. But it's going to be hard to get into those in the near term. We're working on plans, and other brands like us I'm sure are doing the same thing, we're working on plans of how to make adoption even easier and simpler. Almost like click order on the website and a box shows up and it walks you through how to set up the robot and the whole bit. But that's not today. And we focus on deployments with brands, great partners like the White Castles of the world, who is our first major chain to really go deep and I give them all the credit in the world. It's great because they have very standard operating practices and we can kind of print and repeat store after store. But I really look forward to the day when our technology is flexible enough to go service the mom and pops in the people who are working alongside these big chains but not as large in scale.
Mariam Sobh [19:13] At what point does a brand, if they decide to introduce full or partial automation in the kitchen, choose to retrofit existing stores or only to add full automation to its new stores? Is that something... a decision that comes organically, is it based on market fit, experimentation?
Jake Brewer [19:29] Yeah, actually a very good question. We have a department here at Miso where we have a gentleman named Sam and he is the Director of Solutions Engineering, and the reason why that exists in our brand is because of what you're saying. It's not like buying a fryer where you're taking an old one out and putting a new one in. This is changing some things about their operational workflow, some things that they've been doing for a long time. And so Sam and his team will go in and his ability to go in and start to assess a brand for how our product fits. And our product is mass produced, meaning it's an off the shelf product, but it has high flexibility. Do you have two fryers, three fryers, four or five? Do you need to have cook to order items? Do you do things like taco shells, like Jack in the Box?
So we have flexibility in how we design, spec our product similar to a car where it's like, " Well, I don't want navigation, but I want leather seats." We have that same flexibility within a range, a limit. And Sam will go in and some brands we go, " Oh my gosh, this is a knock it out of the park situation. It works perfectly in your existing restaurants." And by the way, it's never 100% but a good... Some of the brands we're assessing, it's like, honestly, this gets really easy in 70, 75% of all your restaurants today. And they are going, " Yep, we agree. We just start planning in how that works." White Castle would be an example of that. Then there's other brands that we go, " Honestly, it fits in only two to 5% of your current restaurants." But Wing Zone is one where they said, " Yeah, that's great, we're a fast... we're a quickly growing brand."
And David Bloom, the chief development officer there is like, "And I am specking in Flippy for every future build and therefore I'm going to make this space happen." And so it's kind of a both, but it's not a organic... it's organic in the way that we foster it. We foster the process. It's not organic like we just throw it against the wall and see which outcome it is. We know before the first installation in any pilot brand that we're with one, that there's a positive ROI for the brand, two, that Flippy has the capability to do what we need it to do for that brand, and three, is a strategy for this brand largely retrofit, half retrofit or mostly new builds? We do look at that specifically.
Mariam Sobh [21:48] Jake, if we look ahead to the next five years and take into account all of the progress the restaurant sector has made so far with automation, what does the future look like to you? Let's think about that for a moment and discuss it after we hear from Stellar Pizza's Benson Tsai.
Benson Tsai [22:02] So all of the dough, for those of you who are listening might know that good pizza dough needs to proof and develop flavor for about two days depending on the recipe that you have, but as our dough gets loaded into the modules in our vehicle, the refrigerator in our vehicle, and that refrigerator gets loaded into the vehicle. And from there the dough ball is picked from the machine, it moves it over to the dough press and the dough press then opens the dough, so it flattens the dough and it also heats it briefly just to let it retain its shape and then it goes into our topping line where sauce, cheese and pepperonis, which are freshly shredded from the logs onto the pizza. And then whatever toppings, the other toppings that you order, go onto the pizza.
And then it goes into our oven system and gets placed on an automated pizza peel, so something that will dispense and remove pizzas from our ovens. And so that whole system cooks the pizza and from there it gets output into the back of the truck where right now we don't have slicing boxing, but that will also be a part of the entire system. It actually doesn't take very many people to run the... like zero people to run the machine. It would be one, maybe one person to hand the pizza to someone. It's a very simple... in the ideal scenario, it's a one driver and one truck able to deliver and dispense pizzas to the world.
Mariam Sobh [23:25] Jake, if we look ahead five years, what does automation in the restaurant industry look like to you? What are some of the trends, good or bad, that you think will be with us or we'll only begin to see in a few years?
Jake Brewer [23:38] Yeah, I think the future for the restaurant industry looks like more options for everybody. And I'll go back to that conversation we had briefly earlier around the question won't be, " Should I use technology in my restaurant?" It'll be, " Which technology do I use in my restaurant?" I bet within five feet of everybody right now there is a phone and computer and an iPad or something. I'm looking around my desk, of course I have all of it right here. But you kind of go 25 years ago, no one had cell phones. Fast forward to today, no one goes to the bathroom without their cell phone. So it's like, I think it's not a question of if... it's that same thing, people don't view it as, " Well, should I have a cell phone or not?" It's, " What cell phone am I going to have and how do I use that?" And that's what I think the future holds.
I also, to be a little bit more dreamy and fun, is I think some big brands will start to fully adopt automation in certain aspects. So you could see almost some brands go, " You know what, I have a full service version, typical drive through or a fast casual type setup," where it's, " If you want to go have that experience with my brand, you could have that experience with my brand." And then you could almost see the shipping container model where it's like and then you drive up and it's just a window and maybe instead of having 10 staff, it's one staff and instead of having the full menu, it's just their top seven items and it's fully or nearly automated. I think that's nearer than we think. But I do think you will eat at a restaurant in the next five years if you're listening to this, that will have a robot doing something whether you know it or not.
Mariam Sobh [25:24] Jake Brewer, this has been great. Thank you for joining us on Changing Places.
Jake Brewer [25:28] Absolutely. Thanks for having me. This was fun.
Speaker 5 [25:31] Well, if we lived in a better world where that meant less labor for working class people, then that would be great. But unfortunately we don't. So we have worst of both worlds.
Speaker 6 [25:40] But in terms of once you figure out what this robot should do, I think that generally a robot is not that different from hiring just like a cook that's not a chef and saying do this exact thing. I think the robot will probably do the same or better job.
Speaker 7 [25:55] I feel like it can be viewed either way. Some people can view it a bit dystopian, kind of like Black Mirror ish, but it can also be pretty cool like self- driving cars that could be helpful in the future. So I feel like there are definitely positives and potential negatives to it. But I wouldn't be completely closed off to it.
Mariam Sobh [26:15] Mariam Sobh: Again, Darian Ahler.
Darian Ahler [26:17] I'm a little bit of an optimist and so I see a bright feature ahead. For Bobacino specifically, we really want to leverage this automation to be able to improve access to an already delicious product. One thing we'll see is as quality increases and continues to increase in the automation industry, you'll see larger comfortability and implementation of this automation. But at the end of the day, a robot can't do everything, nor should it, and so you're going to see this divergence of quick service, fast casual that's highly leaning on automation in order to deliver the demand and throughput, which is going to lead to curated menus that are going to be leaning heavily on the automation to make sure that the automation can do that.
With the rise of automation and as that becomes more commonplace, you're going to see the way that restaurants and logistics are impacted. I see it being leveraged more and more by automation with these last mile delivery robots and starting to build that more into the back of house and front of house solutions that they're going to take advantage of that. You might see a decrease in dining spaces for quick serve and fast casual. You're going to see an increase on the logistics as they're trying to find ways to automate that might not be done at the restaurant level and create more like spoken hub logistics. You're going to see the rise of ways to pick up food faster and more securely in a bunch of different ways to increase that speed of service, increase the throughput, increase the consistency and quality and the changing needs of the US and the world for how they're doing.
Mariam Sobh [27:56] And finally, Benson Tsai.
Benson Tsai [27:59] There's so many different people attempting to bring automation to the restaurant, to the customer. I sort of view it as similar. We're all trying to figure out what this looks like and there are going to be winners, there are going to be some losers. Once one company makes a big dent in the food industry with automation, everybody else will need to catch up. I do think that as the technology improves and as there's fancier machine learning like automation, robotics and techniques to handle these food items, we're going to grow into other categories. But it is important to note that like coffee and pizza and burgers, all of these things that have already been automated are already a huge industry. Like on any given day, 14% of America eats pizza. So the early technology is going to chase the industries that make sense and eventually we'll have more and more capability to produce other foods.
Mariam Sobh [28:47] I'd like to thank Darian Ahler, Jake Brewer and Benson Tsai for taking the time to give us insight and clarity into automation in the food sector. Automation in fast food has been with us for some time, and yet the future of robots making our food feels new, fresh, almost like something out of the Jetsons. From everything we've heard today, I wonder if we'll ever get to the day when the delivery robot gliding down the street or taking the elevator up to your hotel room is as frictionless as asking a smart device to play one of my favorite songs of the moment, which are way too many to list. At the end of the day, as long as the fries are hot and crunchy, the pizza crust is just so, and the boba eases your mind on a summer day, does it matter who or what makes it? Maybe in a few years time there will be more automated restaurants and vending machines waiting to provide that perfect snack, hot within 90 seconds with the swipe of your credit card. Until then, maybe we should seek out restaurants and concepts for the experience and the thrill of seeing the future just before it arrives. After all, sometimes the future gets here when you are busy making other plans or waiting for your robot prepared order at Taco Bell.
I'm Mariam Sobh, this is Changing Places. Changing Places is brought to you by Avison Young. Our producer is Andrew Pemberton-Fowler, our sound engineer is Patrick Emile and our production assistant is Hugh Perkic, with onsite audio provided by Michael Castaneda, Engin Hassan, Stephan Kimbel Olsen, Pietro Sammarco, and Emily Shaw. Additional production support is provided by JAR Audio.