Is it possible to have a completely autonomous restaurant? We may be closer than you think. Walking along 42nd street in NYC the other day a fast food restaurant caught my eye, Eatsa. Eatsa has been around since 2015, but it is not widely known with only 7 stores (San Francisco, New York, and Washington D.C.). Eatsa’s business model virtually removes the need for employees in its locations.
Much like an Apple store, when entering an Eatsa you will not see a checkout counter. The restaurant itself is fairly sparse and may be mistaken as a shipping store because of the number of touch screen kiosks along the walls and a large wall with compartments/bins.
Here’s how it works
- You walk in and head straight to a touchscreen kiosk, where you select a prepared quinoa bowl or custom build your own.
- Swipe your credit card to checkout
- Make your way to the back wall where you will see compartments (company refers to as a “cubbies”).
- Once your order is ready, you will see a notification on a status board and a cubby will light up with your name on it. You tap twice on the cubby door; grab your meal; and you are on your way.
The company states that during a typical lunch rush hour you can expect a 3 – 5 wait before your meal appears in a cubby and during down times you can expect 60 – 90 seconds.
This all had me thinking, do we have the technology today to have a completely autonomous restaurant? Eatsa is partially there, but they still need to have a kitchen with human bodies preparing the food, supervision, cleaning, and supply chain management for replenishing the inventory.
There are a number of companies providing automation in the kitchen from advanced conveyor belt systems in sushi restaurants in Japan to automated ingredients dispensing systems, but there isn’t anything quite like the Moley Robotic kitchen. Moley’s robotic kitchen at first looks like something you would see in the animated sitcom The Jetson’s and is almost hard to believe that it is real! The company claims that it can prepare 100 different recipes and is looking to be able to do 2000. Watching the demo video of this robot in action gives you an idea of the range of dexterity it has, you could clearly imagine a line of these robots assembling individual meals. Moley is just one of several other robotic kitchen assistants. The Flippy Robot by Miso Robotics is being used in Caliburger locations, which uses computer vision to precisely flip burgers on the grill. The company’s robot can also handle other kitchen tasks such as frying, prepping, and plating.
Sushi chain restaurant Kura in Japan has removed supervisors from its restaurants by sending real-time video feeds from each of its 300+ locations to a central office and to roaming employees to watch and connect directly with any given location that has a problem. Using today’s deep learning computer vision, problems could be identified faster and messages could be sent directly to a customer’s phone or to an employee of the company.
For cleaning I am assuming that the restaurant provides disposable utensils and dishware. When garbage bins reach capacity, a trap door could open in the bottom sending the garbage into a larger container below. At the end of each day the main garbage container could be emptied into a dumpster, which is then moved (using a conveyer belt system) outside for city garbage collection. Cleaning the kitchen could be visualized by using Moley’s robotic kitchen as an example; if the preparation area is enclosed a system of high powered water jets could scrub and disinfect. Lastly, for the public areas where the customers place and pick up their orders, industrial strength autonomous cleaning robots could be deployed such as Intellibots.
Supply Chain Management
Many of Amazon’s distribution centers (DC) today run with virtually no humans. Kiva Systems (now an Amazon company) uses a system of small robots that grab racks of merchandise and move them around the DC for picking and replenishment. Like an Amazon DC, a rack containing refrigerated and dry food compartments could be moved from the preparation area to a loading dock when a delivery truck is approaching. Using computer vision and displays, the driver/robot could be guided to place food and supplies in the correct compartments on the rack(s) (if a mistake is made, the displays could message the error for correction).
My belief is that we are still quite a ways from a completely autonomous restaurant, but in the near future we could certainly see high-volume locations that only require a couple people. Public health regulation will most likely be the primary culprit to preventing a restaurant from being completely human-free, but I am sure that there will be a plethora of logistical issues as well. Until then, we’ll probably start to see more restaurants implement technologies like Eatsa and Japanese sushi restaurants.