Data Snapshot is a regular AFN feature in which we analyze agrifoodtech market investment data provided by our parent company, AgFunder, a food and agriculture technology venture capital firm.
Nowadays, the need for more robotics in foodservice is evident. Just look at the latter’s ongoing labor shortage. More than 10% of roughly 11 million job vacancies in the US are in foodservice. Inflation-induced price hikes and lower immigration rates add additional challenges — the former because it increases costs for restaurants and the latter because immigrants have historically been a core part of US foodservice.
And it’s not just in the US. Japan, Korea and other Asian countries also grapple with labor shortages, as does Europe.
Food robotics offerings built specifically for the restaurant/foodservice industry are trying to alleviate these problems. In fact, while most foodservice robotics startups will say they’re not out to replace humans, the vast majority claim they can ease worker shortages and cut costs.
At present, foodservice robots take a very small slice of the VC funding pie compared to other downstream agrifoodtech sectors, such as food delivery or eGrocery. Foodservice robotics raised nearly $250 million over the last year, according to AgFunder data. [Disclosure: AFN’s parent company is AgFunder.]
Unlike eGrocery or restaurant delivery apps, developing foodservice robotics involves hardware, typically a tougher sell to VCs than a software-only, more quickly scalable venture like a grocery app. Hardware requires more capital to deploy, takes longer, and is inherently a riskier proposition for investors.
“Hardware is expensive, so the rollout is slow,” says Christopher Albrecht, founder of food robotics publication OttOmate. “The biggest thing about food robotics now is the same thing it’s been for the past couple of years: almost none of the food robot-related companies operate at scale. Even delivery robots operate in the low thousands by the biggest player [Starship]. Food-making robots only operate a handful of units across the U.S.”
The US still leads in terms of number of deals and deal size. But Asia, in particular, is catching up thanks to players like Neubility, Wada Bento in Hong Kong and Nosh in India.
“One thing I’m watching is shifting demographics,” says Albrecht. “Japan has a greying population, China’s population is declining, and as of 2021, the U.S. population growth was the slowest since the founding of the country. Will we start to see more demand for robots as there are fewer younger people available for jobs?”
While we await that answer, there are a number of companies laying the groundwork for a future in which robots take a much bigger role in foodservice.
|IMM, Cleveland Avenue
|Happiness Capital, Taiwan Global Angels
|SV Tech Ventures, Amino Capital
|FCP Ventures, Allston Venture Fund & more
|Golden Resources Development, Gravity Capital Partners
|Artesian/Boab AI, AgFunder
|Caldo Restaurant Technologies
Restaurants, hotels and other hospitality businesses use Bear Robotics’ Servi ‘bots to run food, bus tables and serve drinks to customers. Well-known chains such as Denny’s, Hwy55 and Marriott are among the company’s partners. Servi also works in some cafeterias and senior living centers.
Bear Robotics’ big pitch to hospitality is that Servi can execute basic tasks so humans can focus on providing superior customer service and/or care.
The company did a massive Series B round in March 2022 led by IMM with participation from Cleveland Avenue. Softbank is also an investor. And while the Series B took place before the downturn ramped up, ongoing labor shortages still provide opportunity for robotics.
A growing number of cities now offer food delivery via autonomous delivery robots. Starship is a leader amongst these startups operating these six-wheeled roving ‘bots that can deliver restaurant takeout and groceries.
Born in Estonia in 2014 by Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, Starship is now headquartered in San Francisco. At the end of 2022 it had completed 4 million autonomous deliveries in cities around the world.
Starship is also noted for its partnerships with universities in the US. Grocery chain Co-op in the UK and restaurant delivery app Grubhub in the US also use Starship.
It’s $42 million Series B in 2022 was led by Japanese-Nordic VC firm NordicNinja and the Estonian investors Taavet+Sten. The round followed directly after a €50m ($57m) investment from the European Investment Bank (EIB).
Botrista recently said it had increased 2022 sales of its DrinkBot machine “tenfold” and was “confident in tech adoption in 2023.”
Like others on this list, Botrista says it can help restaurants with labor shortages by automating certain tasks. In this case, it’s mixing and pouring “craft” drinks using patented blending technology and what it calls “algorithmic dispensing.”
DrinkBot machines can handle everything from smoothies to cocktails, which can expand a restaurant’s beverage menu without adding excessive extra work for humans.
Botrista has declined to say the exact dollar figure on its Series B from last year. Ditto for investors to the round. Data from Crunchbase puts the figure at $38 million and lists Happiness Capital and Taiwan Global Angels as investors.
Botrista has DrinkBots in 26 US states currently, including the popular Halal Guys chain.
Piestro is one of a host of pizza-making robots out there. It takes just three minutes to make a pie with Piestro’s automated system, which is a vending machine-like kiosk equipped with robotic arms inside.
The company’s team collectively brings strong background in both food and robotics. CEO Massimo De Marco was one of the original founders of ghost kitchen network Kitchen United. CFO Christian Huff’s credentials include Miso Robotics (maker of the Flippy robot) as well as restaurant tech startup Ordermark and its virtual restaurant subsidiary NextBite. Others in the company count Google and autonomous driving company Waymo on their resumes as well as major CPG brands like Pepsi.
“Pizza is a super popular food that people can easily identify,” notes Albrecht. “If you see a sign that says ‘Pizza’ on a vending machine at an airport – you pretty much know what you’re getting.”
There are a number of different takes on the pizza robot hitting the market, he adds. “Frozen pizzas re-heated and dispensed from vending machines (API Tech). ‘Fresh’ pizzas with pre-made dough being topped and cooked while you wait (Piestro). Pizza also doesn’t require things like mixing and stirring. Top it, cook it, slice and slide it into a box.”
Audley McBrian Wilson, the investor of RoboBurger and also the company’s CEO, says his first robot prototype was “the size of his dad’s garage.”
Today, RoboBurger’s autonomous vending machine measures just 12 square feet, plugs into a regular wall socket and uses a five-step cooking process similar to those of quick-service restaurants. The entire process of cooking the meat, dispensing condiments and assembling the burger takes about six minutes.
RoboBurger opened its first official vending machine in 2022 in its home state of New Jersey. Other developments from the last year include launching on higher education campuses via a partnership with Chartwell’s and its Seed 2 investment from PE firm Promethean Investments.
“I would chalk up RoboBurger’s raise to being unique in the marketplace,” says Albrecht. “I don’t know of any other burger-grilling vending machine out there.”
The company also just hired executive chef Jeremy Einhorn, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.