Machines can’t bake soufflés or fold burritos . . . yet. But in eateries popping up around the country, robotic chefs are steaming veggies and slinging pizza sauce. What’s cooking at state-of-the-art restaurants like Spyce and Zume may soon appear in a kitchen near you.
Customers at Spyce, a fast-casual Boston eatery, watch as prepared Brussels sprouts, quinoa, kale, and sweet potatoes tumble into one of seven swirling vessels. Each pot heats the food and plops it into a waiting bowl. Presto! A machine-made meal.
At Zume Pizza in Mountain View, California, a mechanized kitchen forms pizza dough, applies tomato sauce, and moves pizza into and out of the oven.
Automation in the food industry isn’t exactly new. As Solomon observes in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Machines have washed dishes and brewed coffee for decades. And in the early 20th century, “automat” cafeterias served hot food when customers fed a coin to open a glass door.
Food service gadgets usually weren’t seen by customers. Now moto-kitchens take center stage. At Spyce, dozens of gears, sensors, and moving parts are the real draw.
“The openness of the design was something we knew we wanted from the beginning,” says Brady Knight, a Spyce co-founder and engineer. “We didn’t want to hide anything because we think what we made is pretty cool.”
Food processing machines are both speedy and healthy. “Our robot doesn’t get sick,” Knight says. However, machines have a harder time handling fresh food. At both Spyce and Zume, humans must do the trickier work—cutting meat, layering toppings, reducing sauces, and adding garnish.
Then there’s the economics. Paying a human to chop and mix is cheaper than buying a bot for those tasks. That could change as businesses develop cheaper and more efficient robot chefs.
Even so, not all robots successfully contribute to customer satisfaction. In Germany, a robotic system to deliver meals from kitchen to table ended in a pile of backed-up pots. In March, a burger-flipping bot in California turned patties too slowly for customers’ tastes.
Yet the lure of watching machines twirl and toss has folks lined up at Spyce. But is this a robot chef or just another high-tech novelty machine?
“I really wouldn’t consider that a robot,” says Tom Ryden, a robotics expert, about the auto-pots at Spyce. “It can’t make decisions,” he points out. “It’s just an automated system.”
Maybe so. But Ryden admits he’s eager to join the crowds to try the non-robots out.