Technology | July 2016 | By Bruce Horovitz

Robots are About to Change Everything

A new fro-yo vending machine signals the potential rise of robotic operations.
Fast food operators explore robot technology to streamline restaurant jobs.
The Reis & Irvy’s Fro-Yo Kiosk dispenses nine flavors and six toppings with a robotic arm. Reis & Irvy

When I was a kid, I was mesmerized by all things robotic. For a special birthday gift, my grandmother surprised me with a shiny, plastic-and-tin Robert the Robot toy. When I first looked at this gift in the box through the clear plastic wrap, I suspected a small miracle had just happened. Then, when I took it out of the box and turned the crank attached to its remote control, Robbie, as I affectionately called him, not only started to walk, but his eyes lit up a fiery red, too. I was convinced that the Red Sea had just parted.

Fast-forward about 50 years, and guess what: Robbie is alive, well, and serving frozen yogurt. Well, not exactly. But a company dubbed Fresh Healthy Vending is betting that it can successfully combine the consumer appeal of better-for-you frozen yogurt with the wide-eyed performance appeal of a robot-like machine—dubbed the Reis & Irvy’s Fro-Yo Kiosk—dishing out fro-yo that consumers can personalize with their favorite toppings.

“It’s one of the first direct experiences that most consumers will have with a robot,” says Nick Yates, chairman of Fresh Healthy Vending.

Indeed, the big sales pitch isn’t so much the frozen yogurt but the robotic machine that sells it. The robotic arm delicately removes a cup from its cup holder, places it in the yogurt dispenser, dispenses one of nine flavors, and then moves along to several toppings (customers can choose two of six). For 6 ounces of yogurt, some toppings, and, of course, the one-minute show, folks pay $3.50, or $4.50 for 8 ounces.

The robotic yogurt contraption was officially unveiled at the International Franchise Expo in New York City in June. Executives claim it’s the first fully automated frozen-yogurt robot to market.

It’s a far cry from Pinkberry, Red Mango, or sweetFrog. And it might sound a bit goofy to some. But in one form or another, robots of all sorts are showing up across fast food and retail. Ordering kiosks, some that act almost robotic, have popped up everywhere from McDonald’s to Sheetz as companies try to reduce labor costs and speed up service. Several vendors at this year’s National Restaurant Association Show featured kitchen robots ready to prepare everything from french fries to salads. Even Taco Bell is beta testing something called TacoBot, which is an artificially intelligent chat bot that not only takes orders via consumer apps, but also suggests order upgrades. And now there’s a robotic fro-yo machine.

Detractors have their doubts that a robot can revolutionize something like frozen yogurt. “I think it’s a desperate grab by fro-yo,” says Peter Madden, president and CEO of AgileCat, a branding specialty firm. What’s more, Madden says, the fro-yo world’s “brand positioning has never been rooted in the future and technology.”

But robots aren’t such a crazy idea in today’s foodservice world. With $15 minimum wages established in several states and cities, a fro-yo-scooping robot would have some relevance—though top executives at San Diego-based Fresh Healthy Vending say cost savings aren’t the driver at all. “The product is a show stopper,” Yates says. “The robotic arm is a novelty that stops people in their tracks. Kids go absolutely crazy for it.”

He’s seen it first-hand. An earlier version of the robotic yogurt machine continues to attract crowds at the Houston Space Center. A more recent version, at a trampoline park in Puerto Rico, is an even bigger hit, he says. And within the next 12 months, the company hopes to sell at least 50 more units to franchise owners nationally. All the machine really needs is 12 square feet of space, a 220-volt plug, and, yes, someone to tend to it.

While there’s no need for a human being to serve the product, someone has to maintain the equipment, which includes a 90-minute top-to-bottom cleaning every week. So the robotic machine isn’t a job killer, Yates says, which is how many people view robotic innovations in foodservice.

A robotic machine could help bring more excitement to the frozen-yogurt industry, which has seen expansion slow in the last couple of years. While the industry grew at a 18.2 percent clip in the five-year period leading up to 2015, according to market research firm IBISWorld, it will continue to grow at a far more conservative 5 percent annual rate in the years leading up to 2020.

Still, 5 percent counts as room to grow. And Yates predicts a robot vending machine could be just the thing to satisfy that potential.

“Robotics is the next generation of vending,” he says. “Yes, there’s a huge element of novelty and gimmickry to this, but that’s the way things are evolving.”

Madden, the consultant, says that while Millennials will post images and videos on Instagram and Snapchat of themselves using these robot machines, it will only be a passing trend “before they move on to the next thing.”

Not so, says Yates, who insists that impulsive purchases from machines like fro-yo robots will only grow—particularly in well-placed areas like tourist destinations, universities, and even hospitals.

Just six months ago, Nick Wright, Fresh Healthy Vending’s director of operations, was at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, where one of the early versions of the machine had been placed. But Wright wasn’t there because of the machine. He was there for the birth of his son, Oliver, who was born seven weeks premature and needed special attention.

Wright spent many days at the hospital, and during that time observed first-hand how children at the hospital—many with life-threatening illnesses—reacted to the robotic fro-yo maker.

Wright remembers one young boy in particular who was wheeled into the vending area. As soon as the boy saw the robotic fro-yo machine, “he was able to zone everything else out,” Wright says. “A massive smile appeared on the boy’s face.”

It was, of course, the boy’s Robert the Robot moment. For him, with the whirl of a shiny, robotic arm and a splash of M&M-topped fro-yo, the Red Sea parted.

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