Food Robotics Feeding Latest Kitchen Automation Solutions
We may not have much in common with each other these days in ‘Murica, but there is one thing that still binds us together: food. And we’re not even talking about rampant obesity and diabetes. The majority – six out of 10 of us, according to the National Restaurant Association – have worked in the food service industry at some point in our lives. More than 15 million people currently work in restaurants, which are projected to generate about $863 billion in sales this year alone. So, naturally, we want to talk about how food robotics will disrupt all that with automation.
Zume-ing to Unicorn Status
It’s a topic we’ve chewed over before in articles about futuristic burger joints or robotic baristas and robotic butchers. We decided to revisit the theme after recently reading that a Silicon Valley startup called Zume, which rose to prominence for its robotic pizza machines, could soon be worth upwards of $4 billion. That’s a lot of pepperoni. Founded in 2015, Zume has already raised $423 million for a reported valuation of $2 billion. It’s backed largely by free-spending SoftBank, which poured $375 million into the startup in late 2018 and is apparently considering sinking more cash into Zume. We first came across the company more than three years ago when we wrote an article about a VC firm that uses AI to find startups to invest in.
Since then, Zume has changed its focus from food robotics – more on that shortly – to an enterprise model revolving around the relatively new concept of cloud kitchens. No, cloud kitchens aren’t where divine chefs bake angel’s food cake. Rather, they are restaurants that only do delivery. The most well-known of the bunch is probably CloudKitchens, which took $400 million in
blood money funding from Saudi Arabia and is led by Uber founder Travis Kalanick. In Zume’s case, it is leveraging its high-tech mobile delivery trucks and big data to help other restaurant entrepreneurs feed the Millennial masses.
The Brains Behind the Zume Robot
The thing is Zume was never really a food robotics company to start. Its pizza-making robot was actually developed by two California-based robotics firms – Lab2Fab (L2F) and CVM Inc. – the latter of which developed and tuned the majority of Zume’s pizza robotic systems leading to a full deployment in just three months. As for L2F, they previously worked with startups like flying car manufacturer Kitty Hawk and Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Tesla (TSLA) on robotic automation solutions. It has also built a robotic restaurant concept called “Middleby Market” that is sort of an automated food court that includes a robot bartender, as well as automated ice cream and coffee machines. The piece de resistance is The Big Island, a robotic conveyor belt system that can cook to order using ovens and fryers made by Middleby (MIDD), a major restaurant equipment manufacturer that also happens to own L2F among dozens of other brands.
Food Robotics Market
More and more companies aside from L2F are enabling kitchen automation with food robotics, an industry that so-called analysts predict will be worth somewhere between $3 billion and $6 billion by 2026. Food tech news website The Spoon even hosted its first food robotics summit this year and developed an interesting market map to boot:
We’ve already covered startups like Miso Robotics, which developed Flippy the burger-flipping robot, and Creator (formerly known as Momentum Machines), which has raised more than $18 million since we wrote about the company more than three years ago. Its gourmet burger-making machine is a thing of beauty, churning out $6 burgers in the Bay area:
In the remainder of the article, we’ll profile additional startups developing food robotics for kitchen automation solutions that we haven’t covered before.
Bringing Pizzazz to Pizza
Founded in 2012, French startup Pazzi has raised about $13.5 million, including $11.1 million this past June. The company opened its first “pazziria” last month in Val d’Europe, a town outside of Paris that was basically built by the Walt Disney Company to cater to its Disneyland Paris resort. What better place to see the company’s pizza-making robot, which can prepare the dough, spread the sauce, pop the pizza into the oven and then into its box, before slicing and serving it.
Founded in 2016, Seattle-based Picnic raised $5 million last month in a Seed round for its modular food robotics system that the company says can be configured to perform any number of food assembly tasks, though Picnic is starting with pizza. The machine can churn out 300 12-inch pizzas per hour. It appears to require more human collaboration than the Pazzi robot, and a video on Youtube shows the machine in action.
Picnic has a Robotics-as-a-Services (RaaS) model, where the company delivers, installs, and maintains the equipment on a subscription basis. Customers also get a suite of other services including cloud analytics, around-the-clock performance monitoring, and continuous free software and hardware upgrades.
Update 05/18/2021: Picnic has raised $16.3 million in Series A funding to scale up commercial operations and make new hires. This brings the company’s total funding to $34.2 million to date.
Food Robotics Kitchen
While Picnic aspires to be a full-service food robotics kitchen, other startups are already working on that aspect.
Founded in 2015 by four MIT graduates, Boston-based Spyce has cooked up nearly $26 million in investments, including notable names like Khosla Ventures and Qualcomm. Forget the pizza. Spyce is woking up healthy bowls of chicken and veggie dishes. The robot features seven cooking woks heated using induction that constantly tumble the food in order to provide a nice sear. Of course, what do four college dudes know about cooking aside from burning Ramen noodles? So they enlisted two-star Michelin chef Daniel Boulud, who developed the menu. He also speaks with a French accent, so you know the food is legit.
Founded in 2014, Tokyo-based Connected Robotics grabbed $7.9 million in a Series A this past July for its robotic arm technology, bringing total funding to $8.5 million. Its flagship product is the OctoChef, a robotic arm that uses deep learning to dish out a number of tasks in the kitchen, including cooking the perfect octopus ball. OctoChef is designed to do the grunt work in the kitchen, from pouring the takoyaki batter into a pan to stirring ingredients in a bowl. While the company doesn’t explicitly say, we assume OctoChef uses computer vision to manage its tasks based on the video that we saw.
We’ll Drink to That
Other robotic food companies are developing beverage solutions, such as 6d bytes out of Silicon Valley that has raised $3.7 million to date, not including an undisclosed Series A in May. The startup has created Blendid, a smoothie-making robot that also uses machine learning and computer vision to whip up blended fruit drinks. Blendid is a little more conscientious about its job than your average high school dropout. For instance, it can remember if you liked your smoothie with less or more banana, making the juice shake with the precise amount of ingredients to suit each customer’s taste. Each component of the robotic food kiosk is reportedly a standalone IoT device that can alert the operator when a particular menu item is running low or if there is a technical problem with the machine. And you thought wheatgrass in your smoothie was innovative.
For those who prefer a stiffer drink: Founded in 2014, Makr Shakr out of Italy plays to stereotypes with its robotic bartender named Toni, which reminds us of Yanu, an Estonian AI-powered robotic bartender. The app-controlled robotic bartender features two mechanical arms that can shake, stir and even muddle cocktails with “coordinated, dance-like movements.” Toni can mix up to 80 drinks per hour. The bonus? He doesn’t expect a tip.
Food Robotics Staff
Some of the latest food robotics systems aren’t about baking, cooking, or mixing drinks. We found one solution for the back of the house and one for the front of the restaurant operation.
No one likes to do dishes, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Silicon Valley-based Dishcraft Robotics has cleaned up with about $30 million in funding, including a $25 million Series A in June. Yes, it seems more like an automatic dishwasher than Rosie the Robot Maid from the Jetsons, but the company claims to use AI to make sure that each dish is squeaky clean. The business model seems to be dishwashing-as-a-service (DaaS), as the dirty dishware is taken to a central location for cleaning. The four-year-old company plays the sustainability card, as well, saying its robotic dishwasher helps to cut down on disposable plates and utensils.
Update 05/28/2020: Dishcraft Robotics has raised $20 million in Series A1 funding to expand its service beyond the corporate kitchen. This brings the company’s total funding to $45.2 million to date.
Another Silicon Valley startup, Bear Robotics, has developed a robot in the true moves-around-and-does-stuff sense with Penny. Founded in 2017, the company has raised about $3.8 million for a robotic waiter. Penny can deliver food, drinks, or even help bus tables using indoor navigation similar to self-driving cars. The company says Penny is not designed to replace the country’s 2.5 million waitstaff but to free them for value-added tasks like
more smoke breaks better customer service.
Like Picnic, Bear Robotics offers Penny as a RaaS that includes all technical support, training, and initial mapping of the restaurant for navigation. The bonus? She doesn’t expect a tip.
Update 03/16/2022: Bear Robotics has raised $81 million in Series B funding to roll out their waiter robot. This brings the company’s total funding to $115.8 million to date.
Unless you live in the San Francisco Bay area or a few other select big cities, you’re not likely to see any of these food robotics systems any time soon. In fact, at this point, it’s hard to imagine the tech will spread much beyond Silicon Valley. However, there’s obvious interest in kitchen automation, especially in the current economy with labor shortages in low-wage jobs.
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