What would you like for lunch? How about a katsu curry? Take a seat – it’ll be prepared by a robot, customised to your preferences and ready in three minutes.
The scenario may sound like it was lifted from a sci-fi novel, but it became a reality for employees at Ocado’s headquarters in 2022. They hosted the first real-world trial of the food service robot Semblr, the creation of UK-based start-up Karakuri. But before you get too excited, the path from lab to commercial (or domestic) kitchens looks far from assured, and an injection of automation might not necessarily spell good news for our diets.
Kitchen robotics have been swept forward as part of a wider wave of innovation in the foodtech space, which includes the use of automation in supermarkets and food deliveries. In kitchen automation specifically, our analysis found that the start-up Aitme raised £7.7 million in 2021, while Hyphen raised £17.7 million in early 2022. This level of investment has been underpinned by a boom in venture capital (VC) investment over the previous decade fuelled by low interest rates. But now that VC investors are pulling back across the board and overall investment in the foodtech sector is down 65% year on year, how many ‘robochefs’ will still be left standing when the dust settles?
Back in 2015, one of the first kitchen robots to achieve a degree of fame was unveiled by Moley Robotics. It boasted robotic arms capable of whipping up a crab bisque, modelled on the movements of MasterChef champion Tim Anderson. These highly sophisticated inventions are unlikely to make an appearance in our homes any time soon (in 2021 a ‘Moley Robotics kitchen’ was reported to cost a minimum of £150,000). However, this technology could be suitable for use in commercial settings.
In particular, dark kitchens – catering premises without a restaurant front that exist solely to produce takeaways – are being targeted as especially promising sites for robotics and automation. These sites (also known as ghost kitchens) can typically be found tucked away on industrial estates and areas with low footfall. The low cost of renting this kind of property, when combined with the labour savings from kitchen robots, opens up new opportunities for companies to lower the price of meals. Tel-Aviv based Kitchen Robotics is specifically focused on the dark kitchen sector with its ‘Beastro robot’.
A wave of kitchen automation could spell upheaval for workers in the food industry – estimates suggest that one particular robot could save employers in the US up to 75% in wages. But there are also nutritional implications. Karakuri recently debuted an automated fryer that can produce 60kg of french fries per hour (that’s more than 500 portions of McDonald’s medium fries). Earlier last year, American fast food chain White Castle announced plans to install 100 Miso Robotics fryer robots in its restaurants. Chipotle has teamed up with the same company to test out tortilla chip making robots. If innovation ends up being primarily channelled towards the mass production of fast food, one consequence could be a relative reduction in price of these products when compared to healthier options. How might this impact consumer behaviour?
Over time though, kitchen automation need not be bad for our waistlines if some of this research and development (R&D) is redirected towards healthier processes. For example, fryer robots could be developed to use the lower-fat technique of air frying instead of deep frying. Chains specialising in healthier options might also start to get in on the act – last year, the US salad chain Sweetgreen acquired kitchen robotics start-up Spyce, to “create healthy fast food at scale”. The Canadian kitchen robotics company YPC Technologies claims its robots can make thousands of recipes using fresh ingredients and have created a “cooking as a service” business called Jasper (situating robotic kitchens near residential high-rises and charging a subscription fee for freshly prepared meals).
But before any of these innovations in kitchen robotics can scale, they will need to survive the sharp market downturn in VC investment. Already, there are reports of shutdowns, including at least three pizza robotics start-ups in 2022. A salad-making start-up, Chowbotics, was also shut down a year after being acquired by the food delivery company DoorDash. The recession will likely lead to further closures and dwindling resources for R&D.
Kitchen robotics start-ups may still have work to do when it comes to refining their value proposition, but there are clearly potential efficiency gains up for grabs when it comes to automating time-consuming aspects of food preparation and distribution. However, we should also be keeping a very close watch on whether the push for faster, cheaper food comes at the expense of the quality of our diets.