It’s unclear how much this technology can capture at White Castle and beyond – and how much it could detract from restaurant jobs if it does.
Flippy represents one of many solutions that companies have presented to automate food production. Other food vendors are also experimenting with introducing similar concepts to their kitchens.
You will not be able to find many of these futuristic items in commercial kitchens today. But restaurants now more than ever have reason to be interested in automated solutions, said Michael Schaefer, head of beverage and food service research at market research firm Euromonitor International.
That doesn’t mean robots will replace labor right away, he noted. If automation becomes more common, “I do not think it necessarily warns of mass unemployment in the restaurant industry,” Schaefer said. “But it can certainly mean a relocation of where people work.”
In addition to labor shortages, restaurants are finding that many customers who switched to takeaway and delivery during the pandemic are still interested in that model. So “there is a general interest in rethinking the layout of restaurants, rethinking the workings of a restaurant,” Schaefer said. “Every restaurant has to some extent thrown out the rulebook. Everyone is much more open to trying new approaches.”
Plus, there are more options available for restaurants right now, both because of more investment in space and because robot technology has been improved to make more automated kitchens possible, he said.
Still, there may be limits to what kitchen robots can do, he noted.
“General purpose of cooking in an exquisite restaurant – to put together a variety of dishes consistently every time, night after night – it seems exponentially more difficult,” than making french fries or chopping salads, he noted.
Like a new iteration of an iPhone, Flippy 2 is smaller and more efficient than version 1.0.
The first Flippy needed people to put frozen fries in a basket that the robot could then grab, explained Mike Bell, CEO of Miso Robotics. Then Flippy – who looks like a huge robot arm – would dip the basket into a tub of oil at the correct time, which is pre-programmed, lift it up and let it empty a human employee.
Flippy 2 can even fill the empty frying basket by placing it under a dispenser that drops the right amount of fries for a small, medium or large order into the basket. When it’s done cooking, Flippy 2 can dump that basket of boiled fries on a tray.
Flippy is still very much in a testing phase at White Castle.
A big part of its appeal is that the robot is immune to human stressors and distractions. It can cook about ten different items including french fries and uses artificial intelligence to identify what they are, according to Bell. Flippy, which costs restaurants about $ 3,000 a month, “can work around the clock. It doesn’t require benefits or days off,” Bell said.
Both Bell and Richardson maintain that the robot should not replace workers.
With more automation in the kitchen, White Castle employees can spend more time talking to customers and doing things robots can’t, according to the company. Flippy is “like any other investment we make in the kitchen that just makes the job easier and allows us to hire more people over time to do other things,” Richardson said.