Robot Chefs: The Past, Present and Future of Technology in the Kitchen

Tags: Food, Fast Food, Technology, Robots, Nicholas Morine

Nicholas Morine by Nicholas Morine

We’ve all been there. Standing in line at the local burger joint at noontime, suppertime, or kids-birthday-party-of-insanity time. Long lineups, overworked and sometimes undervalued service workers working at a frantic pace. Curt conversations, sometimes rude exchanges, often initiated by customers, but not always. Sometimes sloppy food preparation due to the rush, and with it, an increased risk of food poisoning or at the very least, a burger that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

 Momentum Machines, an innovative and inventive start-up looking to change the face (and the back-end) of quick service (or fast food) restaurant dining, has what they believe is the answer.

 360 hamburgers an hour, cooked to order within minutes

Robots. Robots that make hamburgers to order. With fresh ingredients -- tomato that is literally sliced seconds before being placed on the patty. The patty itself is formed moments before cooking. If you’re not pulling a Homer Simpson right now, splayed back and salivating with the very thought of a fast-food burger at a fast-food price that tastes gourmet, you may wish to consult a physician.

The Momentum Machines team (consisting of experts in fields ranging from fast food operations to engineering to culinary arts to marketing and gamification) claim that the current revision of the machine can process about 360 burgers an hour and that the next revision will even allow customized blends of specific meat cuts.

 “What’s old is new again”: the automat becoming the hottest experience in self-serve dining out

In the early twentieth century, the automat restaurant -- a restaurant in which food was dispensed via in-wall “boxes” similar to vending machine panels for about a nickel -- first reached the shores of North America. By mid-century in the 1940s and 50s, working class Americans would be widely familiar with eating at automat restaurants, downing dollops of cream spinach, mashed potatoes, salisbury steak, and bacon and eggs.

However, behind those banks of illuminated panels showing off the goods, a huge staff of restaurant cooks would be working to prepare all of the various entrees, appetizers, desserts, and beverages. Human hands working diligently would refill and empty the mechanized coin slots, and place the plates and cups into the small alcoves from which customers might pay and pull them.

The implications of robotic food service in our own twenty-first century are such that these staff would be largely unnecessary, perhaps even entirely obsolete.

While the automat is largely extinct outside of some fringe interest in revival-inspired restaurants, there is still considerable room for debate as to whether or not mechanization can replace the human touch in the fast food industry, let alone full service establishments. This remains to be seen.

No future for fast food workers -- or is there?

The team at Momentum Machines states that one of the most obvious benefits (for owners and operators or franchisees) of using their machine is that it cuts down drastically on labor cost. Of course, the reverse of this is the fact that due to a lack of labor being needed, jobs are also lost -- Momentum Machines claims that this is mitigated by a new need to service, manufacture, and sell these new machines and supports. 

While this is a possibility, there can be little doubt that automation may provide stiff competition over human labor in the fast food marketplace, where an extremely high degree of standardized behavior and operations by flow chart is already de rigueur. The real questions boil down to cost and feasibility in the field -- something as yet largely untested.

Will consumers flock to a quicker, complaint-less burger machine-ordered?

There can be little doubt that it would be an attractive option to many, particularly in the value and speed oriented quick service sector.

However, with a competing consumer trend favoring “buy local” attitudes and with artisanal and handmade goods seeing a huge resurgence in popularity -- perhaps even as a reaction against the same standardization and mechanization of product lines and consumer choices -- there is no certainty as to whether or not SkyNet will be supplanted by FoodNet as the next technological struggle on the horizon.

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