Flippy is making burgers, Chippy is cooking french fries, and Remy is serving up salads. Customers may not even notice them, but robots are becoming more common behind the counter at fast food kitchens.
At Food Republic, a quick-service joint in Vancouver, Remy looks like a giant stainless steel box. Inside, it receives the order to portion out each salad ingredient. Cucumbers tumble down a tube into a takeout bowl, which then moves along a conveyor belt to collect the next topping.
Ashkan Mirnabavi is cofounder of Canadian robotics startup Cibotica, which designed Remy using artificial intelligence and machine learning. He describes it as an automated assembly line that can make as many as 300 salads an hour. “Each ingredient is dispensed accurately and precisely because of that core technology,” he said.
A former restaurateur himself, Mirnabavi said Remy could help businesses create consistency, chop customer wait times, and cut labour costs by 33 percent. Cibotica allow clients to “hire” Remy for a monthly subscription fee and he said the demand is promising.
“We’ve received a lot of inquiries and purchase orders from companies in the U.S. and Canada.”
Remy is far from the only robot in fast-food kitchens. As companies grapple with staff shortages and seek to cut costs, more big chains are turning to automation to make food faster and cheaper.
Robots on the rise
Since the pandemic, fewer people have wanted the fast-paced and demanding jobs on the restaurant sector’s front lines.
By 2021, more than 250,000 restaurant workers had quit to find new careers, according to a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Amid those staff shortages, labour costs have also been rising. Companies have looked for solutions fill the gap, and many of them are designed to replace human workers on the assembly line.
Domino’s is running trials with a pizza-making machine at one of its locations in Berlin. White Castle has implemented giant mechanical arms to flip burgers (nicknamed Flippy) and cook french fries (Chippy) at locations across the U.S. At a pilot restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas, it’s nearly all robots serving McDonald’s customers.
American salad outlet Sweetgreen is going all in. In 2023, CEO Jonathan Neman told investors that he expects every location to be automated in five years.
Making fast food faster
Chipotle Mexican Grill is buying in too, testing a few options that could roll out in its Canadian locations later this year.
“They can do the same task over and over and over again with a very high degree of efficiency and success,” said Curt Garner, Chipotle’s chief technology officer.
The California-based company is experimenting with a machine called Autocado. It cuts, cores and scoops avocados, helping serve up a batch of guacamole in half the usual time. There are plans to add machine learning capabilities to the Autocado that eventually will help it evaluate the quality of avocados without human assistance.
Garner said workers are then free to focus on less repetitive tasks, moving to other kitchen or customer service roles.
Garner said jobs will become easier so the staff that remain can spend more time engaging with guests. He doesn’t expect robots to replace all workers at Chipotle since there are just some things machines can’t do.
“They don’t learn like humans do. They’re not as adaptive to a change in an environment.”
While the technology is still expensive, fast-food chains are starting to weigh the benefits of staff that can work around the clock and won’t call in sick. Garner said a piece of equipment like Autocado will pay for itself in one to two years.
Restaurant jobs ripe for automation
Restaurants have traditionally lagged behind other sectors in introducing industrial robots, though they could potentially replace 82 per cent of jobs, according to one forecast by industry consultants Aaron Allen & Associates. Some experts suggest the workforce is on track to shrink permanently.
Dr. Robin Yap, a professor of management at George Brown College, said while the technology will boost opportunities for innovation, he cautioned that it’s crucial for employers to plan to retrain their employees.
Yap suggested companies could move human workers to more customer-facing roles, or to managerial positions. They could also give employees technical training.
“Maybe they now become the technicians for the robots because ultimately you need maintenance. I mean, these are machines, they don’t just run forever,” he said.
Yap predicted the robots will become ubiquitous in just a few years, though he said throughout history, workforces have been able to adapt to disruption.
“When we had a typewriter, when we had the phone … all of those things have shifted work. So it’s not new that there will be shifts in where … humans are needed.”
With files from Laura MacNaughton