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The restaurant business has always been one of small margins. Thus, even before the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the income potential of millions of eateries and shuttered more than 100,000 others nationally, owners were looking for ways to cut costs.

Like many other sectors, restaurants have turned to automated and connected technologies. For better or worse, owners feel they can reduce their major overhead expenditure — labor — with robots who will do the work people do now. Robots already can flip hamburgers, make pizzas, mix cocktails and serve as bartenders. Robots can also replace table waiters by rolling (or even walking) food to customers at their tables.

White Castle Kitchens is testing a pilot program that employs a robot to cook hamburgers, make french fries and chicken nuggets, popcorn shrimp, corndogs and more. The robot is made by Miso Robotics, a California firm. It calls its cooking robot “Flippy” and can be had for just $30,000 including a $1,500 a month fee. The latter is to provide software updates, maintenance and to teach Flippy new tasks. 

White Castle has vowed not to lay off workers as it experiments with Flippy, although that is perhaps cold comfort for labor advocates who fear the Flippy experiment may be too successful. It must be noted, however, that in the era of the pandemic, replacing human workers with robots is an effective way to avoid exposure of customers to workers.

Other technology-assisted strategies have been developed to reduce human contact between all parties involved in the process of serving customers at a walk-in restaurant.

One concept is the virtual kitchen. It’s slightly different from a virtual restaurant which is just another word for a take-out only provider. A virtual kitchen involves a dozen or more restaurants teaming up to use a single location to prepare food and serve customers in a common dining area. A key is that a virtual kitchen makes heavy use of smartphone ordering as well as automated conveyor serving. A virtual kitchen can sit a smaller amount of socially distanced people onsite but makes up for lack of walk-in customers by ramping up take-out orders. 

The latter can be handled with “no contact” protocols, as in the delivery being left at the customer’s door. Since payment is made via a smartphone, a delivery driver is not required to collect payment or have physical contact with customers.