May 25, 2017

A Look at Automation for Restaurants in 2017

There is a scene in Family Ties where Michael J. Fox’s Alex Keaton is describing how he gets cleverer every day. “I look at the day before and think, ‘How could I have been so stupid?’” he says. That, in a sense, is the situation with restaurant automation brought on by the current phase of technological evolution.

table spread

Each year’s new advancements are seen as somewhat rudimentary by the following year’s achievements, and the circle continues to spin. So, when we look backwards, how far have we come over the past year or so?

In February of 2016 we looked at a few new features of automation in restaurants. Now, a little over a year later, let us take a look back at these and see whether those trends are still at the sharp end of the industry, or if we’ve moved on some since then.

New Trends in Restaurant Automation

Our previous article highlighted two main areas of advancement in automation – these being front of house automation and automation in the kitchen – which we will revisit now:

1. Front of House Automation

Our last article detailed the fact that the movement from manual order-taking to mobile POS systems, and then to mobile apps, has increased productivity. This is very true in that giving customers the ability to order for themselves reduces the amount of mistakes in the ordering process while making the process faster and thereby reducing turn time.

a woman working on laptop

This is a viewpoint that is reflected by the adoption of self-ordering systems in fast food restaurants. But it is likely that self-ordering will soon be commonplace in more traditional restaurants as well.

Take Eatsa for example. The San Francisco eatery that opened late last year has not only automated the ordering process but has automated the serving process as well. Instead of the traditional process of a server taking orders and bringing out meals, this restaurant has diners order the quinoa-based meals they want and then collect them from futuristic-looking hatches upon preparation. So sophisticated is this system that diners don’t need to see any of the restaurant’s staff at any point in their dining experience.

Will this detract from the dining experience with which we have become so familiar over the years? It isn’t likely. Technological advancements are constantly catering to those who want to blend new trends with traditional experiences. In fact, it has come to the point where diners can simulate certain foods and dining experiences through virtual reality.

Project Nourished, for example, is a virtual reality experience that allows diners to eat non-caloric food that pretends to be its real-world counterpart.

Through a VR headset (to simulate the food’s appearance), an aromatic diffuser (to simulate the smell of the food), and a 3D printer (to simulate the texture and taste of the food), it is possible to eat doughnuts, pizza, cheeseburgers, and other high-calorie foods without having to worry about dietary or health compromises.

2. Automation in the Kitchen

Our article from a year ago detailed the relative ease of front of house operations as opposed to automation in the kitchen. We detailed how necessary it was to speed along the integration of kitchen automation due to the fact that immigration restrictions were limiting restaurants’ access to leading chefs. Now, in the wake of Brexit, this is even truer.

kitchen robot

So, if the effects of a shortage of trained hands must be limited through back of house automation, what steps is the industry taking to achieve this level of automation. Well, big ones, actually.

In our past look at kitchen automation we mentioned the Frima VarioCooking Center, which essentially allows lesser experienced cooks to handle a large amount of the kitchen’s tasks, limiting the need to fill the kitchen with experienced (and often expensive) chefs.

The VarioCooking Center handles large-batch cooking, which it controls through touch screen technology. This allows large quantities to be cooked up to 4 times faster. But, while this does allow for the faster preparation of food under the supervision of lesser-trained cooks, it still requires the human touch.

This year sees advancements in kitchen automation move to the fully robotic. On the fast food front, Momentum Machines has designed a fully-automated ‘robotic’ kitchen. This machine creates hamburgers with relatively no human assistance. It only requires the pre-loading of ingredients, after which it churns out perfectly constructed burgers at the rate of 360 burgers per hour.

This could revolutionise the fast food industry by making it even faster and, importantly, bringing foreseeable consistency to quality control. Moreover, with the machine only requiring 24 square feet of space as opposed to the ordinary restaurant kitchen requirement of hundreds of square feet, this automated chef could pave the way for a decrease in kitchen size in favour of more seating in fast food restaurants.

However, fast food is not the only form of food service that will benefit from total kitchen automation. Fine dining is also set to experience the benefits of automation thanks to the Moley Robotic Kitchen.

Using motion-capture technology, this robotic chef is able to simulate the exact movements of a human master chef. Adoption of this technology by restaurants will give them food of the highest quality, prepared flawlessly and exceptionally quickly. And, with the ability to program recipes and techniques captured by the world’s leading chefs into these robots, it is possible for restaurants all over the globe to offer food ‘prepared by’ these famous chefs simultaneously.

open restaurant sign

Restaurant Automation Moves Quickly Forward

With front of house service experiencing new opportunities in terms of automation, the traditional dining experience could well change dramatically. However, with technology being able to simulate more traditional dining experiences by way of virtual reality, this factor is not likely to hold back the charge towards total automation.

The same can be said for robotic food preparation, which is poised to increase quality and consistency and lower turn times in the industry. And, as is always the case with progression, those establishments offering hands-on service and food preparation will be able to market themselves to diners seeking that traditional experience, and the industry will prosper at both ends.