COVID-19 Accelerates an Age of Automation for Restaurants

    At a time when human contact is discouraged, restaurants are turning to more automation.

    MakiMaki leverages robots, Saladworks automated vending machine
    MakiMaki, Saladworks
    MakiMaki (left) leverages robots to prepare its fast-casual sushi, while Saladworks boasts an automated vending machine from which guests can either order a pre-assembled salad or create their own.

    The image of a robot waiter handing food to restaurant patrons may seem like a far-off concept, belonging to the worlds of flying cars, time travel, and “The Jetsons.” But maybe the industry is more ready for the future than people think.

    A 2019 study by Polaris Market Research forecasted that the service robotics industry would grow to $54.4 billion by 2026, more than three times its $13.1 billion value in 2017. Add in the COVID-19 pandemic—pushing consumers to prefer sterilized surfaces over human touch—and that market potential may be way bigger. Indeed, now seems like the ideal time for restaurants to hop on the automation trend.

    Kevin Takarada is founder of MakiMaki, a fast-casual sushi bar in New York City. He says being able to do more with less labor is going to be essential in the future. Even beyond the direct effects of the pandemic, he saw automation as a solution to financial problems down the road.

    “It’s not just, ‘We have to be able to be more safe,’” Takarada says. “We have to figure out how to make up for the lost business. Rent is still there and it’s not going away.”

    From the conception of the sushi concept, automation was essential in MakiMaki’s business model. Takarada created the brand’s simplified menu around processes that robots could accomplish, encouraged to utilize automation as a way to remove the inefficiencies that came with production. He estimates significant steps toward automation will be made within the next three to four years.

    However, the approach to adapting robots for the workplace isn’t a one-step process. “I think a lot of restaurants are starting to do their own research to see what kind of tools are out there. But we can’t just say, ‘Oh, I’m going to make a robot that’s going to make a sandwich automatically,’” Takarada says.

    The key to finding the appropriate place for a robot is to automate the most redundant and difficult tasks. For MakiMaki, a robot that could put rice on seaweed in a consistent manner was the perfect task to automate. Other companies are catching on to this approach; Takarada says robotics company Suzumo, which creates his service equipment, hit record sales from April to June.

    This push for a more automated workforce isn’t without its critics, especially in the sushi segment, where preparation of the cuisine is rooted in tradition. But Takarada says more sushi operators and even traditional sushi chefs are now considering such practices, and he recommends other restaurateurs do, too.

    “Some people say, ‘Oh, there’s no spirit in it.’ But I don’t understand where the argument is, because at the end of the day, people don’t see what happens in the kitchen,” he says.

    Though MakiMaki’s customer base vanished when Manhattan offices closed, the restaurant’s use of its robots before the pandemic may indicate automation’s value after. Pre-COVID, MakiMaki catered to large events in short periods of time, and the presence of robots even boosted workplace morale. Most importantly, automation helped lessen labor issues.

    Takarada says automation helps save the $15 hourly wage he would have to pay to additional employees, and workers can now perform more involved tasks. In addition, automation helps with the high turnover rates that plague the restaurant industry.

    “If somebody quits, you have to jump in and take that position, or scramble to find somebody else and pay them a premium,” Takarada says. “You don’t have those headaches through automation, and that’s the beauty of it.”

    But some brands have found a way to remove the need for people altogether. Saladworks’ Sally the Robot is an automated machine created in conjunction with food technology company Chowbotics. Resembling a vending machine, customers can choose a pre-existing salad combination or make their own, which the machine then completely assembles by itself.

    Eric Lavinder, vice president of licensing and franchise development at fast casual Saladworks, initiated the partnership with Chowbotics before the pandemic. The company already had a number of off-premises concepts under its belt—ghost kitchens, food halls, and food trucks, to name a few—but Lavinder was encouraged to seek out a standalone product after seeing the increasing popularity of plant-based, healthy food combined with a desire for increased customization.

    “We’re always working on new, innovative things,” Lavinder says. “You’ve got to keep up with the big boys and make sure that you’re not being left behind. We’re always looking at how we can do things differently.”

    When the pandemic hit, high demand for Sally the Robot affirmed the value of automation for Saladworks. Multiple hospitals have displayed interest in the concept, as the machine is a sanitary way to get fresh food. Big-ticket customers, like university campuses, are also expressing interest in having their own Sallys on campus, possibly pointing to a future beyond the pandemic.

    Lavinder says he doesn’t see Sally the Robot as a replacement for storefronts but as a “hub-and-spoke” component to the brand’s brick-and-mortar “core.” He also thinks it will complement the labor force rather than replace it.

    In an era where continued growth and evolution of technology is all but guaranteed, the brand has found some success.

    “We know this is it. It’s going to work,” Lavinder says. “We had a three-pronged approach. Let’s try for captive audiences. Let’s try for franchisees who want to grow the brand and grow the volumes without having to build a second store. And then, from a corporate perspective, let’s find new ways of making the business work.”