If you spent some quality time in the San Francisco Bay area over the past few years then, no doubt, you have encountered the food automation trend where robots and automation take your orders, create your food and serve it in some futuristic fashion. The trend promised a win-win scenario for customers and restaurant owners alike. So, what has been the ROI? I explore the realities and determine that robots and automation can boost productivity at restaurants but cost a company profits if not enough people are involved. Tune in for the details or read the transcript below.
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Hi, I’m Jim Stroud and this is my podcast.
If you spent some quality time in the San Francisco Bay area over the past few years then, no doubt, you have encountered the food automation trend where robots and automation take your orders, create your food and serve it in some futuristic fashion. If you were investor in a food automation startup, the pitch to you probably included this quote from Business Insider which reported on the food automation trend with this quote about robots…
“[robots] could be used to fill repetition-heavy positions that require hours of nonstop work — like line cooking — that could then free up human employees to provide higher quality customer service. Labor costs and, subsequently, menu prices would be lowered, tipping would become obsolete, restaurants could more heavily invest in higher quality ingredients, and profits would increase for business owners in the process” [end quote] which all sounds great! But, what is the reality? Well, I’ll discuss that after this.
In the San Fran Bay area, food automation was definitely a trend. For example, there was the CafeX Coffee Bar which had a robotic arm for a barista building and serving you coffee. At Creator, a startup backed by Google, a robot builds a burger for you in 5 minutes. (A $6.00 burger.) The robot over at Blendid makes Smoothies (also for $6.00) and not to be outdone, a robot named “Sally” made salads over at Chowbotics. Good food fast, at a lower cost (because you’re not employing as many humans), sounds like a win-win for the customers, the restaurant owners and the investors who backed them. Be that as it may, I would offer the cautionary tale of a certain food automation chain called Eatsa. I’ll let Tim Young, the co-founder of Eatsa explain what it is. Back in 2015 he was interviewed by CNet and it sounded like this.
Again, that interview was from 2015. By 2019, Eatsa closed its San Francisco locations and pivoted to restaurant tech and software and rebranded itself as Brightloom. And they were not the only food automation company to pivot to a new direction. CafeX, (the Coffee bar with the robot barista that I mentioned earlier) recently closed its doors at its San Francisco locations, although they are still operating at San Francisco International Airport and San Jose Airport. And Zume, the Softbank-backed startup known for its pizza-making robots, shuttered its pizza business and pivoted into food-truck tech and services in November 2019. Then, in January 2020, the company laid off 400 employees to further cut costs.
So, what happened to the promise of food automation? Why the failures and forced pivots? Well, I (somewhat) have an idea. I’ll share it with you after this.
When I read how the food automation trend was, so far, not all it was predicted to be, two article quotes came to mind. This first one is from USA Today, which reads…
Once robots are implemented in eateries, [Food writer Eve Turow Paul] is concerned that big fast food chains may just opt to put savings generated from employee cuts into their coffers and not into higher quality ingredients. Another big by-product could be simply losing touch with the very meaning of a meal, she says. “Having a sensorial communitarian experience is a reason to go to a nice restaurant,” says Paul. “When there’s a robot making that food, you’re forgoing a certain sense of intimacy with another human being.”
The second quote that came to mind is from Psychology Today. I think I quoted it in a previous podcast. It goes like this…
We live in an era in which communication seems simpler than times of the past. In essence, a co-worker is one email away, a friend is one text away, and a loved one is one video chat away. Although communication may be easier and faster, connection may still be complicated. Therefore, despite the reputation for practical societal advancements, our technologically advanced time is also being linked to a loneliness epidemic. Citing his professional experiences, in which he noted loneliness as the most common pathology, former U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy emphasizes that loneliness and emotional well-being are serious public health concerns.
Have reports of loneliness been increasing? In the last 50 years, rates of loneliness have doubled in the United States. In a survey of over 20,000 American adults, it was found that almost half of respondents reported feeling alone, left out, and isolated. Further, one in four Americans shared that they rarely feel understood, and one in five people believe they rarely or never feel not close to people.
So, is the reason why some food automation companies have failed or pivoted is because people prefer to interact with other people? Sure, that’s part of it, I think. But, I don’t think the food automation trend is dead. Far from it, I think for food automation to take off it has to be in sync with human workers. I’ve said this before when discussing recruitment automation. Think Tony Stark, not Terminator. Case in point, I’ll close out with this quote from Business Insider.
“One of the robot-run restaurants that seems to be doing alright is Creator, which is still humming along since opening in mid-2018. There are “robot attendants” and humans present in most of these restaurants, but there’s more of a human presence in the burger-making robot joint, as The Guardian’s Vivian Ho pointed out. The robot prepares the Creator burger, but humans take your order and perform other tasks. And as SF Gate’s Alix Martichoux writes, the robot restaurants the author visited and enjoyed the most were the ones that involved real-life people.”
So, yes, technology is a wonderful thing; just don’t forget about the people.
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