Reddit Thread About Picnic Sums Up What Robot Startups and Restaurants Need to Do Right Now

Is it time for a food robotics trade association?

Someone posted an old video of Picnic’s robot assembling a pizza to the r/damthatsinteresting subreddit this week. The r/kitchenconfidential subreddit picked it up (which is where I saw it) and at the time of this writing, the video had generated more than 2,000 comments across each of those communities.

Typically I avoid comment sections, but I really wanted to see what people of Reddit thought about Picnic’s pizza bot. What I read wasn’t surprising, and it wasn’t even that inflammatory. The comments by and large fell in-line with what I expected. The fact that I wasn’t surprised is actually a bigger problem for the emerging food robotics industry and the restaurants that want to use automation.

We’re stuck in the same place we’ve always been, and that needs to change.

Here’s a sampling of the comments posted:

Seriously. All the conveyors, tubes for the sauce, spilled shit, etc. A pizza guy could whip this up a bit slower with a ladel [sic.] and clean up is heck of a lot easier. Sauce and Topping containers, countertop, floor. Done.

I could easily smoke this thing. I grew up slinging dough. Watching it work made me angry at how horribly toppings were just thrown willynilly all over.

I do not disagree with you at all but what about in the 6th hour of an 8 hour shift? The robot is guaranteed 45 seconds a pizza but Gil the pizza man starts at 35 seconds but, in hour 4 hes up to 45 seconds, then in hour 6 he's up to 65 seconds. Gil the pizza man can smoke the robot till Gul gets fatigued then the robot takes over.

For a single pizza, yes. But this machine could stretch a dough while saucing another while cheesing another while topping another. Maybe it makes 4 pizzas at half the speed, but it would still be twice as fast as an individual. If you're making 1000 pizzas a night, the machine should win. Plus machines don't need workman's comp insurance or payroll tax.

Oops! You accidentally let the truth slip out. $$$ is the only real justification for robotization of this task. Definitely not quality.

I would wager that the pie turned out by that machine is unmitigated crap compared to a handmade pie made by an experienced in a proper pizzeria. But my guess is those pizzas are destined to be frozen, shrink-wrapped, and boxed for sale at a grocery store.

No self-respecting restaurateur would put those automated starch disks out for customers they had to look in the eye at the counter.

Before we get any further, I should note that I reached out to Picnic, and here’s the response they emailed me:

This video is of a first-generation prototype demonstrating capabilities from several years ago. Restaurants can control the ingredient amounts and the Picnic Station will apply ingredients in line with the desired recipe.

The Picnic Station can produce up to 100 pizzas per hour with one operator. By automating the repetitive tasks like sauce, cheese, and fresh-cut pepperoni, restaurants can produce more consistent product while freeing up employees to do other tasks. In addition to saving on labor, the system averages less than 2% food waste - a substantial savings over the industry average of 10%. 

So we have a classic internet problem of outdated information resurfacing and the immediate, viral reactions from a passionate community piling on without having the whole story.

But the thing is, the Redditors aren’t wrong. Robots are, in large part, about labor savings, and robots will re-shape the job market as we know it (translation: lost jobs). Also, robots are about quantity and are not meant to re-create artisanal, handcrafted restaurant experiences. They are literal machines meant to broaden access to food.

What this Reddit thread shows is that robot startups and restaurants looking to adopt automation need to start communicating better about what pizza and other food robots are for, and that communication needs to happen now.

If there will be fewer entry level positions, be honest about it — and deliver on that promise that robots will lead to better jobs for humans. Also, food robots aren’t meant for every restaurant and chefs aren’t going away (see also: David Chang v. food robots.). There will still be a variety of dining experiences for people to enjoy!

Food robots are still very much new and like everything else in our connected world, there will be a lot of misinformation as the industry grows. But because of the very touchy nature of food robots (lost jobs, a perceived loss of quality), the industry needs to overcommunicate right now and keep doing so. Otherwise we’ll just keep having the same debates every few months and we’ll have to spend more energy putting out internet fires.

I was approached a year or so ago about starting up a food robotics trade group. I think that idea is more relevant than ever as food robots move from the fringes into the mainstream. A food robotics trade group could help align messaging, proactively prepare startups and restaurants around key issues, and even help set up training for displaced workers. If that’s something you’re interested in, shoot me an email and we can discuss.

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