By Glen Martin | Nov 10, 2020
Robotic kitchen assistants
All work is honorable, but let's face it -- some jobs no one wants to do, and flipping burgers and running a deep fryer is right at the top (or rather, bottom) of the list. That stark reality constituted the basis of a bet between hedge fund manager Jordan and a friend -- and the outcome of the wager bodes to change the fast-food industry.
"My friend founded CaliBurger, a chain with about 30 or 40 locations across the country and overseas," says Jordan, "and one day we were talking about the challenges faced by the restaurant industry. And the number one issue for him -- for everyone in the industry, really -- is labor."
It's not primarily the cost of wages and benefits, Jordan says, though that's a perennial issue; rather, it's simply finding enough people. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic the U.S. workforce was down a million people, with most of the diminution concentrated in the lower age brackets, the traditional demographic reservoir for fast-food staffers. And regardless of how the coronavirus plays out, that figure is only going to grow in coming years.
"It's difficult to recruit people for fast-food restaurants, and turnover is extremely high," says Jordan. "Managers are constantly training new employees, only to lose them. And then you can have health and safety issues -- injuries on the job, possible E.coli outbreaks. And these days, everyone is worried about COVID-19. It's a massive headache."
Jordan opined to his pal that it should be feasible to devise a computerized system that could do the drudge work integral to fast food -- and his friend called his bluff, challenging him to develop a robot that could flip burgers. Jordan agreed. "Two months later we had a functional prototype, and I collected," he says.
More to the point, the bet compelled Jordan to start Miso Robotics, a company dedicated to developing the automated restaurant kitchen of the future. With company headquarters in Pasadena, California, he was able to recruit top-end computer science and machine learning specialists from the nearby California Institute of Technology. The initial prototype was refined, and Flippy was born: a robot on an overhead rail that employs proprietary AI and a sophisticated cybernetic arm to precisely grill or fry 19 (and counting) fast-food items, from burgers to jalapeno poppers. "Flippy can even do Impossible Burgers," says Jordan, referring to the popular vegan -- but meat-like -- patty.
Flippy does require human overseers monitoring via screens, but the system performs the grueling hard labor of cooking the food. Along with preparing food consistently and to order, Flippy provides quick-serve restaurateurs with an invaluable resource: data.
"Until we developed Flippy, the data stopped at the walk-in freezer and didn't pick up again until point-of-sale," says Jordan. "Managers had no idea what was happening to product or what their staffers were doing in that interim. Flippy allows detailed tracking, minimizing waste, maximizing safety and ensuring food is prepared according to brand prescription."
Further, says Jordan, obtaining and controlling such data assures greater customer satisfaction. "For most fast-food outlets, things can get backed up on the grill while the fryer is free or vice versa," he observes. "That means either your burger or your fries can sit for a long time under the heat lamp while the rest of the order is filled."
But Flippy can smooth out those unsavory bumps. "Say you're 15 minutes away and you phone in your order," says Jordan. "Flippy knows it takes five minutes to assemble your order [given brand food prescriptions and real-time constraints on facilities], and it arranges the grilling of the burger with the cooking of the fries so they come up at the same time -- when you're driving through to pick them up. Everything is fresh and hot, it's all cooked precisely without direct human contact so all health concerns are addressed, and kitchen bottlenecks have been eliminated."
Certainly, Flippy has whetted appetites in the fast-food biz. CaliBurger is installing the system in its restaurants, and White Castle -- the planet's first fast-food burger chain -- recently announced Flippy will be toiling over the grills in 11 of its restaurants.
That's all gravy for Jordan and his company. "The response is extremely heartening, but we're not stopping with grilling and frying," says Jordan. "We're constantly innovating, working toward a kitchen where all the repetitive and dangerous labor -- including food prep -- is carried out by robots."
That mission is reflected in the company name, Jordan says. "Miso can be interpreted three ways," he says. "First, it's a play on mise en place -- which means 'everything in its place,' and is the set-up all chefs have for basic ingredients and tools at their stations. It also refers to miso, the fermented soup and sauce base that's central to all Japanese cooking. And finally, it's an acronym for Machine Invented to Slice Onions. We slice the onions so you don't cry. We do the hard jobs no one wants to do."
Challenges: Emerging as a first mover. "We're in a footrace with we-don't-know-who," says Jordan. "We figure we have an 18- to 24-month head start before a corporate giant with virtually unlimited capital and an interest in the food space -- like Amazon -- starts running against us. So we have to lock up as many customers as we can as fast as we can. And the way we do that, the way we stay ahead, is through ongoing innovation."
Opportunities: A massive market in dire need of automation, says Jordan. "Our systems provide fast-food restaurants a real service and deep value. They're screaming for what we do, and at this point we have no real competition."
Needs: "The usual: both talent and capital," says Jordan. "Luckily, we're a high profile company located next to Caltech that engineers want to join. And we're also involved in a large crowdfunding effort with a goal of $30 million. We've raised $10 million so far, and we're confident we'll hit our target."