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Where Will Food Robots Hit Big First?
Spoiler: Restaurants. Plus Starship's big haul, pretty little lattes and a live Q&A event!
You’ll Get Served
Perhaps it’s because we’re still at the start of the year (though, y’all — January’s almost done!), but in a bit of universal synchronicity, over the past few weeks I’ve been getting asked the same question over and over from other journalists and consulting clients alike: where will we see food robots first appear at scale?
The answer seems pretty obvious. The first place we’re going to see food-related robots appear in a meaningful way is restaurants. More specifically, we’re going to see a lot more server robots tooling around the front of house in restaurants.
Yes, server robots. Those autonomous racks of trays on wheels that carry food and dishes to and from the kitchen to the table. They are the low-hanging fruit in the world of food robotics.
There are actually a few reasons to be bullish on server robots:
There is a need. Restaurants continue to grapple with labor and staffing issues, forcing some chains like McDonald’s and Starbucks to reduce hours. Yes, there are a lot of factors such as pay and working conditions that play into that shortage, but those issues will continue and the ongoing pandemic isn’t making restaurants a more attractive place to work.
Server ‘bots are useful. The oft-repeated phrase when it comes to robots is that they are at their best when they take over mundane, repetitive, and/or dangerous tasks. Carrying trays of blooming onions throughout a shift may not be “dangerous” (eating them, however…), but if a robot can lug food and dirty dishes around, human staffers can focus more on customer service (and save their backs). Additionally, with the right LED screens, server bots can do double duty and act as mobile ad and promotional billboards while they are scurrying around the room and even sing Happy Birthday.
No need for build out. Unlike many back of house robots that cook, fry or assemble food, robot servers don’t require a restaurant to permanently install a big machine the kitchen. Operators just need to map the restaurant and have a place to charge to the robot.
Of course, if I’m being completely honest, the real reason server robots will be the first to reach scale is because, well, they kinda already have. When I spoke with Orionstar last year, the company said its server bots were being used in thousands of locations and Keenon Robotics already had 6,000 server robots deployed two years ago.
While we aren’t at thousands of robots running around here in the U.S., Chili’s and Denny’s are both rolling out Bear’s Servi robots. If you Google News “restaurant server robots,” you’ll see story after story about local restaurants in Boston, Las Vegas and even Eau Claire, Wisconsin bringing server ‘bots on board.
While there is tremendous and immediate opportunity for server robot startups, the downside is that server robots will also become a commodity. Aside from a few technical and performance differences, they all basically perform the same function — carry plates, don’t crash into people. As such, adoption of server robots will quickly become mostly about price. But as server robots scale up, those prices will continue to fall and you’ll see even more of them bringing food to your table.
Join Our Live Webinar + Q&A with NSF About Food Safety
We recently concluded the eight-part OttOmate Guide to NSF Certification — a must read for any startup looking to build food related robots and automation.
But we wanted to do something a bit more interactive for OttOmate readers, so next month, we are hosting a live webinar and Q&A with NSF about food safety certification. Whether you’re just starting out or well on your way to getting certified, this is your chance to learn more about the process and ask questions directly to the people at NSF.
Here are the details:
What: A free online webinar and Q&A with Orsi Dezsi, Director Food Safety, Product Certification at NSF International.
When: Thursday, February 24 at 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time
Where: Livestreamed on Linkedin
Don’t miss out. Registration is free, so save your spot today!
How Will Starship’s €50M Alter the Robot Delivery Landscape?
Starship announced a €50m (~$56.4 USD) quasi-equity facility agreement with the European Investment Bank this week. Fifty mill is a nice chunk of change no matter what industry you’re in, but it’s especially huge in the robot delivery space where the fundraises have been relatively small.
Starship has raised more than $150 million in total, far more than its competitors such as Coco ($61.5 million) and Serve Robotics ($13 million). But perhaps more interesting is how Starship plans to spend that money.
According to the press announcement this week, Starship said it will build thousands of robots at its Estonian facility. Back on the site, I discuss whether this full-stack strategy is a smart one, and whether this new money will alter Starship’s current college-focused go-to market strategy.
Become an OttOmate subscriber and immediately get smarter about the future of food, restaurants and robotics!
Cafe X Lands Second SFO Location
Don’t call it a comeback — or maybe you should. Whatever you call it, Cafe X announced last weekend that it opened a second robot barista at the San Francisco International Airport.
While operating two locations at the same airport doesn’t mean it’s all blue skies ahead for Cafe X, it does mark a bit of a turnaround. Last year at this time, Cafe X was only doing $100 a day in sales from just one SFO coffee robo (and that was after it had to temporarily cease all operations there because of COVID).
As we’ve discussed before, airports will be the tip of the spear for a lot of food robotics. Automated food kiosks can operate all day, churn out high-volumes of food and drink — and do so without human-to-human contact. A perfect combination for people on the go post-pandemic.
Check out the full story to learn more about how Cafe X weathered the pandemic, and its lessons for other startups that want to work with airports.
Is Fancy Latte Art Now Table Stakes for Barista Bots?
OK. So you’ve built a robot that crafts awesome coffee drinks. That’s great! But are those lattes pretty? Can your robot create milk hearts or leaves, or even better — print a selfie on top of the foam?
Earlier this month Hestia Robotics announced its Coffee Robot K2, which sports a printer to lay out customized pictures on drinks. This type of foam printing is something Germany’s MyAppCafe also offers. And while Artly and Know’s InBot don’t print selfies, both tout their ability to re-create human barista-like traditional art. All of these companies are adding some style to their robotic substance.
Most of the conversation around food and beverage robots is around autonomy, speed and consistency. The same drink, available anytime, served up quickly. So the question becomes whether people will care about how that drink is presented. Getting your face on foam may not make your drink taste better, but the novelty could entice you to try a robot-made latte in the first place.
Serve Robotics: Hardware Engineer (Full-time, Los Angeles or Redwood City, CA or Remote)
At Serve Robotics, we're reimagining how things move in cities. Our personable sidewalk delivery robot, Serve, is our vision for the future. It's designed to take deliveries off congested streets, make deliveries available to more people, and benefit local businesses. Why move two-pound burritos with two-ton cars?
What you'll be doing
As a hardware engineer on EE, you are responsible for designing, validating and troubleshooting all aspects of the electrical design, from the components, PCB and system levels. You will own design tasks involving schematic, layout, component and circuit selection. You will work cross-functionally with and support other teams and stakeholders to ensure that the electrical design meets the company's objectives.
Design and validation of circuit boards and interconnect with a focus on DFM/DFT/DFS
Bringup of new designs in tandem with the firmware team
Troubleshooting and root cause analysis
Development and execution of factory test plans
Provide local support to our operations team in Los Angeles
Providing occasional onsite support at factory builds (San Jose)
Contribute to scalability plans
NOTE: Paid OttOmate subscribers can post a job listing in the newsletter for free! If you’re looking to fill a food robotics role, email me.
That’s it for this week. Thank you for reading!
Stay cool. Have a great summer. Class of ‘90 rulez.