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Foodbots are Here!

What is a foodbot?  In simple terms, it’s a robot that assists foodservice operators to deliver high-quality food and beverage and customer service to guests.  There are kitchen robots that specialize in prep and cooking, and dining room robots that specialize in service aspects.  Sometimes the robots can do both, food prep and serve!

This blog explores the why’s and what’s associated with foodbots… Why are they popular? What are the architectural design implications of their use?  What markets are ripe to utilize them?  And what’s next for the industry?

Why now?

There are several shifts in the current environment that are creating the intense demand for robotics in general.  A shortage of qualified labor is the number one factor. Next, there’s financial pressure, in terms of both capital and operational costs, to achieve better overall ROI for owners. This is a complicated calculation that considers real estate costs, human resource investment, and competitive edge in the marketplace.   And finally, recent technology has hit a home run, enabling the market to turn to robots as a viable solution to these factors.

Robotics technology paired with recent advances in AI application, and 5G cellular infrastructure have enabled robots to hit the scene.  And the cost of robotic technology is decreasing, allowing it to become a reality.  On the foodservice equipment technology side, advances in heating and chilling allow foods to be held at exact temperatures, the key to fresh and better tasting food.   So, now we can deliver very high-quality food and beverage directly to the customer in an extremely efficient manner.

Owners and operators are discovering how to integrate robots into their service model. How can they leverage the technology to create a better overall foodservice experience? How can they increase sales and lower costs? Keep in mind that all foodservice operations run on razor thin profit margins. The business model needs to have a short return on investment.

Customers welcome technology and what it can do to make their lives easier and more enjoyable.  Today’s customer wants food at their fingertips with touchless, frictionless transactions.  Post pandemic, we need solutions that minimize touchpoints and increase sanitation. Foodbot technology provides a solution to all of this and more.

Meet EAT!

Our team at Cini-Little is currently designing a prototypical foodbot, named EAT, for the hotel market. Our concept received an award at the recent HX The Hotel Experience Conference.  EAT is the ultimate foodie concierge, capable of delivering a food experience to any location on the hotel property.  We think of him as a roving “farmer’s market,” carrying fresh foods and beverages on board!  EAT travels to your GPS location and is powered by your smart phone.  Full transactions – order, pay, delivery — are made through your phone and then posted to your hotel portfolio.  Imagine you crave a fresh local craft beer with your dinner experience.  EAT is parked in the kitchen where he is loaded with fresh foods and beverages, including the local craft beer you desire. He then travels to you, wherever you are on the property!  Managers can activate EAT to assist in any food and beverage outlet, even serving as back-up bartender on those busy occasions.

Design Implications

Robots create many architectural design challenges. First, where do you store and charge the robots? Space needs to be allocated for this. Can the facility’s technology support robots? Then there is the big issue of safety. How do robots and humans co-habitate in a safe environment? The facility should be ergonomically friendly for both. Finally, there needs to be a conversation about the functional areas that may not be needed anymore, such as traditional vending. Can the robot replace vending? Possibly.

What markets are ripe for robots?

There are robotic opportunities in most foodservice markets.  We believe the first to enter the market will be high-volume, quick-service concepts — think McDonalds, Chipotle.  Another market is large population/campus clients, like hospitals, colleges, convention hotels, and amusement parks.  In addition, the health care market is looking for higher levels of hygiene and less human contact within their environments; robots are the ticket here. The business models and historical data will power entry of robotics further into foodservice markets over time.

Case in Point

Our client, Purdue University, located in West Lafayette, Indiana, is one of the largest college campuses in the United States to release a fleet of foodbots. We recently completed the design for their new Memorial Student Union Food Hall, which includes a 7,000 square-foot support ghost kitchen. Purdue’s foodbots interface with the entire retail program. Students and staff consider the robots to be an added foodservice amenity.  The robots are a high-tech solution for increasing sales and improving customer satisfaction. The pandemic has increased participation due to the touchless operation and social distancing attributes. Robots deliver food 24/7 to any location on campus. Purdue reports great success with the program.

What’s next?

Most foodservice professionals agree the big challenge is how to integrate robotics technology into an industry that prides itself on hospitality and the personal “experience.”  We want robots to help maintain and heighten our love for food, culture, society, celebration, and discovery. Seamlessly integrating robotics into the “customer service model” will be the challenge for hospitality owners and managers.

As for robots in the kitchen, many of the larger quick-service restaurant chains are in the game. They are finding similar ROI experiences. There is “Flippy” the burger assembly robot and “Bussy” the food runner robot, to name a few.  Robotic baristas and bartenders are popping up across the country. And other applications are entering the marketplace including “sanitizing” robots that travel kitchen areas, cleaning the facility.

Designers, consultants, and owners working on large building and campus master plans are having the robot conversation.  Integrating robots into the built environment will be the new normal.

By:  Kip Serfozo, LEED ID&C AP, WELL AP

Director of Design – East | Atlanta


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