Faster Fast Food
Casual dining is racing to pick up the pace
Before we dive into this week’s topic: Even though I've heard I have the right to remain silent, I've never had the ability.
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The Robots are Coming… to the kitchen
Last week, Sweetgreen announced they would be introducing robotics in an Illinois location. They call the technology “Infinite Kitchen,” which lets customers order at a kiosk or on their app, go into the restaurant and greet a human host, and receive their bowl that was made by a robot with humans involved only for the finishing touches, like adding herbs or avocado. It's hard to tell what's moving faster: technology or food.
As someone who works from home, eating out is an escape from the confines of my bedroom office, allowing me to indulge in social interaction as much as the food. On the other hand, adding more robots to the experience could create a cleaner, more consistent, and safer environment. A world without humans in casual dining might be closer than we think. From the McDonald's order we only let ourselves get past midnight to the latest trending Sweetgreen salad, robots are becoming an integral part of the dining experience.
Robots in the back with no employees: Blank Street
If you know me, you know I hate Blank Street coffee. It's not good. Blank Street is a venture-backed micro-cafe that aims to balance affordability and quality. Their mission is not to provide the most exceptional cup of coffee, but to offer a consistently good cup of coffee that customers can enjoy every day. Blank Street operates with a limited staff, and customers can pre-order through their app or order at a counter. According to Bellwether Coffee, Blank Street uses cafe pods with Eversys super-automatic espresso machines, ensuring that a drink will taste the same every time it’s ordered. With the extra time, baristas can create more relationships with customers, possibly making more repeat customers. None of their locations have seating. I do not care how cheap the coffee is or how friendly the barista is; if the coffee is bad and I can't even sit, I wouldn't go back. Dunkin' offers better coffee at a lower price point, depending on which one you go to. (Dunkin' in New Jersey is the best, Dunkin' in Maryland is good, and Dunkin' in New York is a hit or miss. I will try Boston Dunkin' when I visit but be patient with my review, as I have no plans of going anytime soon.) I did like that Chamberlain Coffee did a pop-up with them, but I wouldn't say I liked this PR move where someone told Emma the best coffee shop was Blank Street. She should have walked a few extra blocks to Café Lyria; it's much more her aesthetic. If the founders of Blank Street are reading this: I am volunteering to be a taste tester: taste in coffee and taste in vibes.
Robots at the front with no employees: McDonald's
My first encounter with technology replacing the traditional dining experience, as I know it, was with a touch screen ordering system at the Frankfurt airport McDonald's. I remember it taking longer than if I ordered at the front counter. McDonald's, or "the evil arches" as my family calls it, recently opened a location in a Fort Worth suburb that relies on robots offering automated food ordering, cashless payments, and robotic delivery. Customers order via kiosks, receive their food on conveyor belts like at a fun sushi restaurant, and then they have to get out because there is nowhere to sit. Customers don't have to interact with employees at the location, but human workers are still preparing the order and cooking the food.
Robots in the back assisting employees: Starbucks
Starbucks has been on the automation bandwagon for a while. It's hard to go to a location without seeing the counter full of drinks that customers pre-ordered on the app, limiting the amount of human interaction. Starbucks is trying to improve barista operations behind the counter with technology. In February 2023, it filed a patent for a machine that can create highly customized beverages to help baristas fulfill the complicated orders I can't help but think are being pushed by tweens on TikTtok. The device would make baristas' jobs easier by guiding them through recipes so they don't have to memorize them, is self-cleaning, and dispensesing syrups and flavors, which require more effort when done manually. In September 2022, Starbucks introduced the Siren System, a format that makes drink production more efficient with a condensed layout and optimized workflow, that reducinges preparation time and increasinges faster service. The technology that was introduced alongside the system included the Clover Vertica, which lets the user brew a cup of coffee in just 30 seconds without paper filters, and Cold Pressed Technology, a patented method that extracts coffee through low-pressure immersion without heating water.
Robots at the counter alongside employees: Chipotle
Fun fact: my friend sent me a Chipotle t-shirt when I was studying abroad because I ate a sSofritas bowl twice a week in college. Another fun fact: last year, Chipotle unveiled a robot cook named Chippy, designed by Miso Robotics, to assist in creating tortilla chips. Also in 2022, Chipotle's $50M investment arm, Cultivate Next, announced that it invested in Hyphen, developers of an automated system called "The Makeline," that acts like the employee behind the counter compiling your order. All online and digital orders are assembled by "The Makeline," but staff members are still present to make in-house orders. Chipotle's investment arm, Cultivate Next, I feel like I see a lot of companies trying to master soft- touch robots that can harvest things without smooshing them, but I would like them to start creating soft- touch robots that can build the perfect burrito. If you've ever had a Chipotle burrito made by "The Makeline,", please let me know if the assembly was better or worse than a human.
Robots and no employees: CafeX
I haven't tried CafeX, but I have tried those coffee machines they have in hospital waiting rooms, and I like them. Cafe X is a fully robotic coffee bar kiosk with a mechanical arm that can serve hot or cold beverages. Currently, they only have locations in the San Francisco airport and at the Museum of the Future in Dubai. Along with airports and hospitals, I see this doing well in places like parks and gyms where families watch their kid's sports games. Ordering with my three younger siblings still scares me to this day; kids would think the novelty of the mechanical arm is fantastic. Parents might also want to order a coffee in silence sometimes, especially after wrangling their kids into the car, only to realize one of them forgot a jersey. First and foremost, CafeX is for people looking to get caffeine into their bloodstream, and honestly, I get it; there is a time and a place. Feeling jet lag after a 5 am arrival in SFO is one of them.
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