From flipping burgers to baking bread, demand for robot cooks soars as Covid-19 hits kitchens

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HAYWARD: Robots capable of cooking – from flipping burgers to baking bread – are increasingly in demand as anti-virus kitchens attempt to put some distance between workers and customers.

Starting this fall, the White Castle burger chain will be testing a robotic arm capable of cooking fries and other foods. The robot, nicknamed Flippy, is made by Miso Robotics, based in Pasadena, California.

White Castle and Miso have been discussing a partnership for about a year. Those talks gathered pace when COVID-19 hit, White Castle vice president Jamie Richardson said.

Richardson said the robot can free up employees for other tasks such as sanitizing tables or handling the growing number of delivery orders. A contactless environment that minimizes contact is also increasingly important to customers, he said.

“The world has just reshaped itself in terms of thinking about food security,” said Richardson.

Flippy currently costs $ 30,000, with a monthly service charge of $ 1,500. By the middle of next year, Miso hopes to offer the robot for free but charge a higher monthly fee.

Robotic catering was a trend even before the coronavirus pandemic, as hospitals, campus cafeterias and the like tried to meet the demand for fresh, personalized options around the clock while keeping labor costs under control. of work. Robot chefs have appeared at places like Creator, a burger restaurant in San Francisco, and Dal.komm Coffee outlets in South Korea.

Now, some say, robots can go from being novelty to necessity. The United States Centers for Disease Control says the risk of contracting COVID-19 from handling or consuming food outside the home is low. Yet there have been many epidemics among restaurant workers and customers.

“I expect that in the next couple of years you will see some pretty significant robotic adoption in the food space due to COVID,” said Vipin Jain, co-founder and CEO of Blendid, a startup in the food industry. Silicon Valley.

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Starting this fall, the White Castle burger chain will test a robotic arm capable of cooking fries and other foods.

Blendid sells a robotic kiosk that prepares a variety of fresh smoothies. Customers can order from a smartphone app and edit the recipe if they want more kale or less ginger, for example. Once or twice a day, a Blendid employee recharges the ingredients.

Only a handful now operate around San Francisco, but since the start of the pandemic, Blendid has entered into contract talks with hospitals, businesses, malls and grocery stores.

“What was forward thinking – last year, before COVID – has become current thinking,” Jain said.

As salad bars closed, Hayward, Calif.-Based Chowbotics began receiving more inquiries about Sally, a refrigerator-sized robot that makes a variety of salads and bowls. Sally allows customers to choose from 22 prepared ingredients stored inside the machine. It can prepare about 65 bowls a day before kitchen workers have to fill in the ingredients.

Prior to this year, Chowbotics had sold around 125 of its $ 35,000 robots, mostly to hospitals and colleges. But since the coronavirus hit, sales have jumped more than 60%, said CEO Rick Wilmer, with growing interest from grocery stores, senior communities and even the US Department of Defense.

Wilkinson Baking Co., whose BreadBot mixes, shapes and bakes loaves of bread, has also received more and more inquiries.

Randall Wilkinson, CEO of Walla Walla, a Washington-based company, said the BreadBot responds to changing needs. Grocers no longer want self-serve options like olive bars, but they still want fresh, local food. Seeing how this food is made also gives them more confidence, he said.

Robot cooks have not always succeeded. Spyce, a Boston restaurant with a robot-run kitchen, closed in November to revamp its menu. Zume, a Silicon Valley startup that made pizza with robots, shut down its pizza business in January. He now makes biodegradable face masks and take-out containers.

Max Elder, research director of the Food Futures Lab at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., Is skeptical of the future of food preparation robots once the pandemic subsides.

“Food is so personal and it has to involve humans,” he said.

Elder is also concerned that focusing on automating food preparation during the pandemic may distract attention from other food system issues, such as outbreaks among meat industry workers or pickers. of products.

“We cannot automate our exit from the pandemic because the pandemic is affecting a lot more than what can be automated,” Elder said.

Automated food companies insist that they are not trying to replace human workers. At White Castle, Richardson says Flippy will allow managers to redeploy workers to drive-thru lanes or help cover a shift if an employee becomes ill. Wilmer, of Chowbotics, claims that Sally could actually create jobs because she continues to sell food at times of the day when it would not have been available before.

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