Meet the Robots that are Replacing our Cooks & Kitchen Staffs
By Jordan Latham
I have worked in the service industry for my entire adult life. There are lots of reasons I gravitated toward the back of the house. Love of cooking does not top that list. I never went to culinary school. I was not a young child at my parent’s heels asking questions while they cooked at home. Kitchen culture was where I found a fit for my authentic self. The culture of cooking in restaurants is only paralleled possibly on construction sites. It is somehow the utmost meticulous, precise and unprofessional working environment. It appeals to those of us that need structure and intensity, and yet cannot abstain from cursing, looking scary and behaving like cocky assholes. The adrenaline from working service on a line creates a relationship with your coworkers you simply cannot experience without the urgency, the heat and the general aspects of bad-assery that create the bragging rights.
So the movement to replace restaurant workers with robots steps on my god damn toes. The Bay Area’s tech innovations are exciting, futuristic and inevitable. While we believed in 2020 we’d be the proud owners of flying, self-driving vehicles, I guess it’s silly to think that anything that can be done by robots is holy. And still I struggle with the insertion of robots in restaurant kitchens. I try to take the perspective that the robots are more like very, very fancy Cuisinart mixers. They could be utilized as tools in a kitchen still run by human cooks. But as the argument for their use centers around cutting the cost of labor for the business itself, it seems as though they are meant to be used instead of us – not used by us.
The Bay Area has a handful of functioning restaurant kitchens that are currently utilizing robots and many more are poised to launch. Eatsa in San Francisco is using robots to perform a job I personally performed in a very similar restaurant, in the same neighborhood in 2013, while I was pregnant with my eldest son. Located in the Financial District, Eatsa offers meals dispensed freshly assembled from a vending machine-style cubbyhole. The service is linked to an app where you can customize your menu, remember your favorite dishes and make suggestions based on your tastes. Berkeley opened an Eatsa in 2016 on Telegraph Avenue near the university. It only stayed open for a little over a year and the company closed its Berkeley doors in October 2017, citing the need to focus on brand testing in just one market. Eatsa makes all kinds of healthy quinoa-based bowls. Actual people do the prep work – steaming the broccoli, shredding the carrots – but the machine dispenses the assembled meal. The customer is required at no point to interact with a person or so much as nod at the guy on the line who put your meal together so quickly and with such laser focus. Your busy-ass barely had to wait and there was no human aspect to acquiring your quinoa, none whatsoever.
Momentum Machines is a burger place that announced it will be soon opening a physical location on Folsom Street in San Francisco. Given its location, these will of course be artisan burgers on brioche, not fast food presentation or ingredients…made by robots. Robots do it all: they chop, they grill and they stack that meat on bread. This place acquired a whopping $18 million in start-up funding and although they haven’t announced an official opening date, those robots are guaranteed to put out 400 burgers an hour, which is a gargantuan dinner service. I suppose the silver lining is that robots run very low risk for sexual harassment suits or slip-and-fall injury claims on the line.
Zume Pizza in Mountain View has three robots working in their kitchen. They perform the menial tasks and human cooks add the flair. They do things like spread the sauce and insert the pies into the oven. Their most impressive machine might be their delivery truck, outfitted with 56 smart pizza ovens that bake while in route. Even I have to admit the efficiency and cool factor to that. Still, if aspects of kitchen work that require the IQ of a glue huffer are delegated to machines, I feel sad nostalgia for whippits guy with four face tattoos. He will no longer have a place and although he wasn’t the brightest, he was part of the ambiance. It’s like kitchen gentrification.
Currently in Walnut Creek, Boxbot and Marble Robotics have put several delivery robots on the street. The technology companies are reportedly in talks with Door Dash to link local restaurants with robot-powered delivery services, whereby the customer comfortably punches their order into an app and receives food quickly and still warm, without having to force a smile or put on pants.
There are definite pros to the efficiency-boosting aspects of smart technology entering the world of restaurant kitchens. When it comes to meal delivery, it’s hard to think of many downsides to omitting the possibility of human error. All the information saved in the cloud about who orders what, where and why must have endlessly valuable research potential. Sixty percent of new restaurants close within one year of opening and the Bay Area makes success even harder to come by. It’s become brutally expensive to pay for space and to keep staff. So, I understand the appeal of mechanical efficiency – restaurants have an uphill battle all the way.
Food, the way it’s presented, the attention to detail, all the different cooking processes and variations are integral parts of culture and human experience. When you travel abroad the first thing people will ask you about is the food. People who cook food run the gamut from ex-cons, to prestigious and highly educated experts in their fields. We are neurotic, we are psychotic, we are perfectionists, we are people and our skills and specific talents and abilities make us valuable. There are countless reasons why people cooking food for people should not be undervalued in the process of cutting costs to operate a business. The novelty burgers cooked by robots restaurant is all good and fine as long as it stays a novelty. There’s an art to providing the experience people expect when they pay to eat out at a restaurant. If a burger joint has no yelling fat men at the grill, is it still everything you hoped for? Seriously the quinoa is one thing but actually grilling meat? You need a belligerent fat man, or woman, to make it taste good. Or at least a good neck tattoo.
In a world where we revere the skills of people who prepare food other people want to eat enough to watch the “Food Network” and read “Bon Appetite”, we need competitive psychotic perfectionists on that line. Running the risk of sounding like a grumpy codger, while I am pro smart technology kitchen tools, I feel a line should be drawn when the human aspects of going out to eat at a restaurant run the chance of becoming obsolete. To me, a location with a kitchen that pumps out food to people solely from machines is reminiscent of animals eating food dispensed from a feeder. Interaction, appreciation, tradition and yes, the risk of human error keep us engaged and awake in a way that is necessary to living our best lives. Going out to eat, whether in an elegant or divey establishment, should include ample human interaction. And it should always run the risk of some cook either blowing your mind with deliciousness, or royally screwing up your meal. Life and food should keep you on your toes, because after all, you’re not a freakin’ robot.