By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | May 21, 2023
Arlington Heights, Illinois
Restaurant robotics and automation
Food preparation is not easy to automate. "Whether it's salty or spicy, it's a huge variable," says Sunkara.
Legacy automation systems were not up to the task, but Nala Robotics is leveraging cutting-edge innovation to make restaurant automation a reality. "If you introduce artificial intelligence into it, if you introduce vision technology into it, it will be much better -- and that's how we designed our entire company," says Sunkara. "In ancient Indian mythology, Nala is the maharaja of culinary, so we named the company after that."
Nala Robotics started with Indian cuisine because of the complex recipes. "We felt that if we go for Indian, the rest of the cuisines could be a subset of it," says Sunkara.
Debuting in 2021, the company's first product, the Nala Chef, is now capable of making not only Indian dishes but Thai, Chinese, and Italian foods as well. In 2022, Nala Robotics released the Pizzaiola for autonomous pizza-making, followed by the Wingman for fried foods and Spotless for dishwashing.
Each machine's benefits are similar: Restaurants have struggled to hire since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, opening the door for automation. "The pandemic created a huge void in the industry in terms of labor," says Sunkara. "With a robotic solution, our company is able to address that."
Nala Robotics has a demonstration kitchen in Naperville, Illinois, and a pair of campuses in India. About 50 employees are based in Illinois, and about 200 are in India.
Sunkara compares the model to the software industry, with R&D and testing in the U.S. and production in India. "Most of the assembly is done in the U.S., and the fabrication part of it is done in India," he says. "All of the research is done here, and once we figure out the solution, we send it to India for fabrication. Once it's done, we ship it here, we test it here again, and if it's satisfactory, we deliver it to the market."
With plans to both sell and lease equipment, Nala Robotics is ramping up installations in 2023. "We are currently piloting with almost every major chain in the country and across the world as well," says Sunkara.
Challenges: Perception. Most restaurants have no experience with automation, and many consumers are uneasy with the idea of robots in the kitchen.
"There's always the fear that robots are going to take away jobs, robots are going to steal our entire economy," says Sunkara. "Actually, it's the other way around, so educating people that robots are going to improve the quality of our lives."
Scaling is another challenge: "Our concentration will start with the major cities and metro areas, and then going into every small town," Sunkara continues. "That's another challenge of what customers we can serve right now."
Thirdly, Nala Robotics' price point can initially raise some eyebrows, but Sunkara is quick to point out that many restaurants can get a rapid return on their investments in automation.
Opportunities: The market is still nascent, but Sunkara forecasts that 30 to 40 percent of restaurants will utilize robotics in their operations by 2030. He forecasts quick-service restaurants will be the bulk of the market, with about 20 percent of Nala's machines going to fine-dining establishments.
Needs: "With the demand that we have, we are considering having another manufacturing facility in the U.S. for orders that are high priority and for customers who need the manufacturing to be done in the U.S.," says Sunkara.