Robots cooking chicken wings might sound like a storyline from a sci-fi movie, but it’s actually the latest concept from Wavemaker Labs, the corporate innovation and product development incubator responsible for launching robotics brands like Piestro, Miso Robotics, Bobacino, and others. 

In May, Wavemaker Labs announced a collaboration with Wing Zone to launch Wing Zone Labs, a new franchisee that will focus on driving innovation for the company. Essentially, Wavemaker Labs has signed on to develop 20 autonomous Wing Zone stores in the Southern California market. Wing Zone Labs has exclusive rights to the region, which covers the entire Los Angeles market.

The announcement is big news for Wing Zone, which was acquired by Las Vegas-based fast-casual sandwich concept Capriotti’s last year. Twenty new stores represent 25 percent of Wing Zone’s current footprint domestically and internationally. But perhaps even more significant is the innovation the deal represents. A move toward total automation in the quick-service space has felt imminent for certain concepts, specifically ones with menu items that can be prepared easily by robots, such as fried foods.

The partnership between Wavemaker Labs and Wing Zone was a natural fit, says David Bloom, chief development officer for Wing Zone. Blooms says the companies were familiar with each other from past projects and the brands’ like-minded approach to business set the scene for a new endeavor. 

“We wanted to take the relationship a little further,” Bloom says of the deal. “At the same time, Wavemaker was looking at their business and figured the best way to learn and understand this side of the business is to actually become an operator. We were natural partners.”

Kevin Morris, president of Wavemaker Labs, agrees the pairing was a natural fit. He says after seeing how well the wing category did during the pandemic it made sense to dive into the world of chicken wings as an operator.

“Wings are great for delivery and takeout,” Morris says. “Chicken wings did really well over COVID and if you look at our partnerships and technology … it felt like a great fit for us. We can inject automation and technology into sores and start to try to build the franchise of the future.”

So, what does the franchise of the future look like? It starts with automated wing frying.

While the stated goal of Wing Zone Labs is to eventually run a fully automated store, getting there is going to take time. The automation and innovation will happen in stages, but some of the technology is already geared up and ready to go, most notably Miso Robotics’ flagship product, Flippy 2. Flippy 2 is an automated robotic arm capable of handling frying stations for chicken wings and other fried foods.

Other technology like AI voice ordering and automated delivery is being considered for the units, Morris says, but he notes planning is still in somewhat early stages, so nothing is set in stone. 

“We’re looking at everything holistically and in all different facets for the front and back of house,” he says. “We want to provide the best experience, pricing, and quality food.” 

From the outside looking in, Wing Zone Lab units will have a similar appearance to standard Wing Zone stores. Morris says the first Wing Zone Lab, which is slated to open sometime this year, will be roughly the same size as other Wing Zone restaurants and will be used to help determine the best design for subsequent locations. 

The first priority is getting operations up and running before tinkering with the layout of the store. Morris says it will take time figuring out how to best utilize the space in tandem with automated aspects like Flippy 2. 

Automating operations helps tackle several challenges the quick-service space is currently facing. It helps deliver a better experience by freeing employees to better serve customers, which has become one of the determining factors in where customers choose to spend their money. 

Bloom says while tech like food lockers will help deliver a better user experience and be the most apparent to guests, it’s the tech the customers won’t see that will help the brand develop better customer engagement. He says lessons learned from Casinos in Las Vegas, where Capriotti’s is headquartered, can be transferred to the quick-service space.

“The gaming industry is probably the best in the world at knowing who their customers are, how often they come, what they do, and what they’re going to respond to,” he says. “The restaurant industry is much further behind on some of that stuff. So when we talk about technology it’s not just the obvious robotics … it’s the customer engagement and customer tracking that we’re going to have. I think that’s where you get the biggest wins.”

Another area where automation helps operators is labor. It’s no secret labor issues have plagued the industry for years, even before the pandemic, and finding ways to save on labor costs while improving operations is a win-win.

Saving on labor through automation works in several ways, the most obvious being you don’t have to pay a robot a living wage. But it also works by expanding a brand’s capabilities. Bloom gives an example of automation allowing Wing Zone Lab stores to operate during light night segments, which he says are when wings are most popular.

“Late night is a big opportunity and it’s hard to find people who want to work late at night,” he says. “Automation makes the economics of staying open an hour or two later a lot more attractive because I don’t need three of four employees … maybe just one and the robot. If I want to run for 24 hours, this makes it a lot easier to do.”

Wavemaker’s Morris agrees automation will help with labor costs and says from an operator’s point of view anything that can help improve margins is a welcome innovation. The automated concept is projected to increase profit margins by as much as 10 percent, according to unit economic figures released by the companies.  

“From a business perspective it [automation] is going to give us better margins,” he says. “Additionally, it will help with food costs, which will help us pass savings along to customers.”

Wing Zone Labs has the feeling of a concept ushering in a new era of innovation. Other brands have introduced automation to concepts, but few, if any, have launched a new concept with the day-one goal of being entirely automated. That might change, says Morris, who believes total automation in the quick-service space is going to become less of a pipe dream and more of a reality. 

“You’re almost always going to have someone eating in the dining room, so there will be some sort of a human element to serve those customers, but the trend we’re seeing is increased automation,” he says. “It provides the best proposition for the brand and the customer.” 

If Wing Zone Labs proves to be successful, Bloom says the brand could open the model up to other franchisees, but it would have to be the right fit and the right setting. Not every market is the right market for this kind of operation, he says. In the meantime, he says Wing Zone and Wavemaker Labs will continue to push the quick-service space forward through innovation. 

“We’re constantly innovating and testing new inventions,” he says. “We’ve been doing that for years and we’re going to stay on that road.”

Fast Casual, Story, Technology, Wing Zone