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Meet the robots coming to a restaurant near you

Learn about Flippy, Sippy and Chippy, the latest technology stepping in to address a protracted labor crisis in the restaurant industry

Photos by Maggie Shannon |  Videos of Lee Powell
Photos by Maggie Shannon | Videos of Lee Powell

In late July, a Jack in the Box in Chula Vista, Calif., hired a new employee. He sat there for a few weeks as other workers swirled around him, jockeying between the platter and the deep fryer, filling paper pouches with the tacos the fast-food brand sells in the hundreds of millions each year.

And then, after learning the ropes, he started to work, focusing exclusively on the frying station, dropping baskets of seasoned curly fries and stuffed jalapeños into vats of oil, eagle-eyed when they were perfectly golden. He doesn’t take breaks, never duck when the boss isn’t watching, call in sick, or rely heavily on company health insurance. But that doesn’t mean it’s cheap. Flippy the Robot cost $50 million to develop, and Jack in the Box cost around $5,000 to install and $3,500 a month to rent.

Restaurants have played with robotics for years, appearing as early as 1983 when Two Panda Deli in Pasadena, California used robots to transport Chinese food from the kitchen to customers. There have been sushi-rolling robots and coffee-brewing robots and tiny “iTray” drone servers: Often these are consumer-oriented, a form of customer entertainment and “added value” to differentiate a brand.

But now — with restaurants facing prolonged labor shortages and robotic technology becoming both better and cheaper — restaurant brands are doing new math. How long before an initial technology investment pays off? How long will it take to train human employees to work alongside robot colleagues? And, eventually, how many restaurant jobs will be permanently taken over by robots?

As Mike Bell, General Manager of Miso Robotics says, Flippy was initially a solution in search of a problem. The company has been working for about six years, five of them entirely in research and development, trying to bring a product to market. The Pasadena Robotics Lab’s sprawling warehouse is full of mind-blowing robot parts and 3D printers jostling to meet the demands of 120 engineers and programmers. Their initial question: in a country that consumes nearly 50 billion burgers each year, why not develop a robot capable of flipping them with precision in all fast food outlets?

They took the idea to White Castle. The burger brand’s executives said the idea sounded good, but they had a more pressing need: Do you have something for the fryer?

The fryer is hot and it is dangerous. This is often where work accidents occur. It’s also where the drive-thru gets crowded at night with people waiting for their loaded fries and chicken rings.

So Miso let Flippy keep his playful name but redesigned it to start dipping fries. White Castle purchased, installing Flippy in a location in Merrillville, Indiana, and then several others across the country, with the goal of having 100 over the next few years. Jack in the Box executives traveled to Pasadena for a demonstration.

Miso Robotics continued, developing a coffee forecaster-maker-pourer for Panera. It has started work on Sippy, a drink processing robot that pours, seals and labels drink orders – which will also be used later this year at Jack in the Box – as well as Chippy, which will soon fry and season fresh tortilla chips at Chipotle. Robots, with their articulated arms, multiple cameras and machine learning, excel at those mind-numbing tasks that restaurant workers have to repeat over and over again. And they’re not sniffling about working the cemetery crew.

“We realized that for a robotic solution to be a real solution for our customers, it had to have a very high customer return on investment. Which meant it had to take a significant amount of work off the table,” said Bell.

For now, they’ve put aside the guacamole robots and the ice cream robots. They try to stay focused.

Jack in the Box’s mascot, Jack, is a kind of proto-robot, inspired by a historical toy from the 1500s, a mechanical clown that popped out of a box when you operated a crank. They’ve ditched the clown in their marketing efforts in recent years, part of the company’s longstanding strategy of throwing things out there to see what sticks. The company was at the start of the now ubiquitous two-way intercom system in fast food, it introduced portable breakfast sandwiches and salads. And its menu has an ever-increasing exuberance that Oscar Wilde would approve of: these days it has more than 80 menu items, about 60% of which end up in the deep fryer.

Flippy has his work cut out for him.

But there won’t be the legions of robots from the movie “I, Robot soon. “Fry, Robot” will be slower: of the 2,270 Jack in the Boxes, 93% of which are franchises, it’s just this store in Chula Vista where Flippy is employed to solve problems, followed by Sippy at the end of this one. year. The goal is to install Flippy in 5-10 more high-volume Jack in the Box locations in 2023.

If robots are cheaper and more efficient, experts wonder, will the more than 3 million entry-level fast food jobs be given over entirely to robots in the future? For now, the thorny problem is that there just aren’t enough humans who want to do the job.

According to the National Restaurant Association, 65% of restaurant owners still say finding enough workers is a central issue. During the big quit, would-be hospitality workers were lured by the promise of fancy fitness club memberships and 401(k) plans. It’s an industry that faced, even before the pandemic, intense scrutiny over wages, worker safety and career advancement.

For the nearly 200,000 fast food restaurants in the country, the customers are there but not the workers. Owners have reduced opening hours, closed dining options and simplified menus to accommodate the changes. With QR codes, kiosk ordering and contactless payment, maybe robots are the balm to soothe the pain?

Back at the Miso Robotics lab, there’s a Flippy around the corner who repeatedly drops a fryer basket into an empty oil vat a million times to test for armature failure. Noise drives engineers crazy. But there are tests that are more difficult to do. How do you test the best way to make humans and robots work side by side? How do you make sure that humans don’t resent robots, don’t become paranoid about losing their jobs?

Meet the robot colleagues:

“This is an enhancement, not a replacement,” said Ali Nemat, Jack’s vice president of operational services, as he sat in the dining room at Chula Vista just before the lunch rush. “Our fryer is promoted and Flippy is her assistant.”

At any one time, a Jack in the Box restaurant has 25 human employees, with one person on the fries shift – even with Flippy, they’re still packing and packing, adding lettuce and cheese. But that could change.

You could see it coming. Flippy started acting weird, jerking off and hanging on. The fry station worker had witnessed this behavior before. Even Joe Garcia, the Miso Robotics “robotics support specialist” tasked with troubleshooting Jack in the Box, had seen it. Garcia, a mechanical engineering graduate from Loyola Marymount University who wants to one day work for NASA, spends his days diving when Flippy sometimes loses his mind when encountering tacos. Back in Miso, there’s a whole Slack channel devoted to why Flippy sometimes freaks out when he has to drop a row of tacos into the special metal perforated taco tray. The engineers watch the replayed video tapes, discuss.

The human worker fished out the soggy row of lost tacos, tossing them in the trash as Flippy stood there, impenetrable and oblivious to a performance review.

Editing by Sandhya Somashekhar, Monique Woo and Karly Domb Sadof.