For the last several months, I’ve been monitoring the roll-out of robo-chefs in restaurants. A fair few of them either end up malfunctioning or on the scrapheap, as it’s not an easy business to get both the technology and the hospitality right. That makes it hard to sense which companies have a winning formula for the foodservice industry — and which may simply be showcases in costly, try-hard gimmickry.
While there is much research that can be done remotely, it is often helpful and intriguing to view get up close — not least to suss out whether any of this actually tastes any good. And it is not just about taste. There’s the surrounding aesthetic worth chewing over; does the robotic rigmarole make you nostalgic for human interaction? Does the whole experience give you jitters about job losses or the rise of pizza-making Terminators? Or do you simply not care — as long as the food is cheap enough, fast enough, nutritious enough, or served with enough robo-bravado that might look sharable on Instagram?
So as much as deadlines and travel constraints will allow, I’m starting to visit these automated restaurants to answer some of these questions. Everything from smoothies and salads to burgers and quinoa bowls are being served by robots somewhere. Earlier this year, for instance, I had my first taste of robo-made matcha latte in San Francisco at Cafe X, and am looking forward to the launch of the robot-run pizzeria Pazzi in France this September, although unfortunately it might be some time before I can sample robot-made octopus balls in Japan.
So when I happened to be in New England last week for a mix of work and pleasure (keep your eyes peeled for an agri-foodtech roundup on Boston’s startup ecosystem soon!) — it was always going to be on the agenda to dovetail over to Spyce in downtown Boston, a restaurant whose catchphrase proudly heralds its “culinary excellence elevated by technology.”
The Spyce Boys
The company was founded in 2015 by four MIT graduates — Michael Farid, Kale Rogers, Luke Schlueter, and Brady Knight, aka “the spyce boys” — who’d all seen a problem in how their student days had been bereft of nutritious, affordable food that they could quickly pickup before getting back to their studies. The year 2018 was clearly a breakthrough one for them, with the opening of Spyce’s first branch which serves globally-inspired, paper food bowls; a hefty $21m Series A round of funding led by Collaborative Fund and Maveron; and winning patent number US 10,154,762 B to Spyce on December 18 for its “Automated Meal Production System and Apparatus.”
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The invention, according to the patent filing, “provides a fast food restaurant/kitchen concept or kiosk with drastically reduced overhead costs. This is possible by automating the entire meal production system, therefore eliminating the need for onsite employees and reducing the space required for the restaurant. The inventive apparatus can be configured to autonomously cook and serve up to 300 meals or more per day with no human involvement. The automated restaurant will preferably be restocked and serviced by employees once every 24 hours.”
This vision is not what you encounter, however. When I entered the company’s one branch as of the time of writing, there were still three or four members of staff waiting to greet you. Facing you as you enter is the grand spectacle of seven cooking woks, all heated using induction, and several touch screens from which to order. There are one or two human “guides” and two so-called “garde-mangers” The guides are there to make you feel more at home, and this actually is a nice touch from the more alienating aesthetic of having no one around to at least wave and smile. You cannot order from them, but they usher you in a friendly manner toward the touch screens. In my case, using cash meant the payment could not be processed, and people had to step in. There is also a bit of human intervention in how the food itself gets made through the two so-called “garde-mangers.” They add a few extra toppings to your food in your bowl, and occasionally squirt a bit of extra sauce into some of the woks, as well as putting a lid onto it and passing it over the counter after popping a sticker on it.
The rest, though, is up to a big machine looming in the background. An orange device dispenses food at a rapid rate, sliding to and fro, delivering ingredients from a refrigerated hopper. But, where do these ingredients come from? It turns out they are prepared back at a central “commissary kitchen” — these are known in the media as “dark kitchens” or “ghost kitchens.” And here, presumably, human hands still come into play out of sight, out of mind. Each night, there is maintenance, cleaning or development still to take place. It means, if the team are to expand to other branches, they will likely stick to the Boston area so as to share the “commissary kitchen.” You still can’t pre-order, which seems like a drawback for the busy commuter types using the restaurant who may not even want to wait the less-than-three minutes for their food. Perhaps, the next level could be location tracking to get the food prepared when the consumer is just three minutes away, so it can be steaming and ready to go once they arrive.
Spyce has tapped Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud as culinary director, which reaps rewards in terms of a delicious and cheap menu. My food order was the “Cavatappi Pesto,” which endowed me, apparently, with 760 calories. It was, in fact, delightful and satisfying. Roasted Chicken, mixed with cavatappi pasta in a succulent basil-sunflower Pesto, and sides of locally sourced asparagus, bruschetta tomatoes, whipped Ricotta with lemon zest — and, for a bit of simple crunch, bread crumbs. As a relative newbie to the vastness of American portions, I rather appreciated how manageable this was, and how I was able to stroll out of there not completely bloated and comatose. Not bad for fast food, and I felt a good deal lighter than I would a few days later experimenting at Burger King with my first “Impossible Whopper!” Another man-made aspect was the iced tea. This was no Boston Tea Party, instead proving to be somewhat flavorless. Bring on the iced tea robots, MIT!
Eatsa Hard Knock Life
It is worth wondering how effective this all is at cutting labor costs or rental space use, considering the machinery itself takes up a fair bit of space, as well as the technology, engineering and maintenance required to keep everything running seamlessly. How quickly will this company expand if it does so branch-by-branch? Probably not very. There is a risk that things are not that much cheaper than its burgeoning rivals. The patent filing, though, gave some indications about another way Spyce could branch out into a new direction: “Alternatively, the inventive apparatus and system can be used in industrial applications for the automated production of ready-to-eat food products or entrees in bulk.” This could hint at a switch into the pre-packaged food industry, either with its own label or as a subcontractor for other brands in this space. This could be what Grace Uvezian, Spyce’s head of marketing and public relations, hinted at in an emailed exchange with AFN about a potential strategic rethink slated for this fall.
They could also go the way of Eatsa, which retreated from running its own robotic restaurants only to reemerge as Brightloom, a company focused on software-as-a-service and providing payment and reward systems to restaurants eyeing their own seamless processes. As Brightloom CEO Adam Brotman recently told AFN, his company now plans to build “a software and hardware platform that focuses on simplifying the total guest journey – from the time of order and payment, through the kitchen, all the way to pick-up as well as after the in-store experience with digital rewards and offers.” But Spyce would need to make sure its own software is up to the task. No such offers or rewards seem to be available as yet.