The next time you open the door to find the pizza you ordered (via an app of course), you may not find a delivery person standing on your doorstep.
Expect to see a drone dropping off your dinner. And perhaps that dinner was by prepped, at least in part, by robots. Eventually, some of your pizza’s toppings may be lab grown-- but in the meantime, even those fresh-off-the-farm ingredients have a good chance of reaching your fork via robotics.
Today, automation is shaping up to be our generation’s food revolution.
“Ultimately, robotics will go beyond the major food chains, giving even the smallest players like local artisanal bakeries and mom-and-pop restaurants the technology to deliver on-demand,” says Marco Perry, founder of Pensa—a New York product design and engineering firm. “The only thing left will be for something to chew our food for us.” Still, it will be a few years before our incisors are obsolete.
“Food-related technology like 3D food printers, robot chefs and fully automated fast food restaurants represent experiments or proof of concepts,” says David Tal, the president of QUANTUMRUN, a consulting agency specializing in long-term strategic forecasting and planning.
“There’s still about five to10 years worth of testing, federal regulation approvals and general cost reductions in robotics involved before this tech goes mainstream.”
But Tal believes all of these innovations will eventually become a reality, although he’s not so sure about the quality and sentimental value. “Will they make a better PB&J than your mother? That’s debatable.”
Hungry for more? Here are a few major food industry movers and shakers to keep on your radar.
Scott Drummond, co-founder of San Francisco-based Eatsa doesn’t mind that his vegetarian fast food eatery has been nicknamed the “robot restaurant.” Instead of cashiers and servers, Eatsa uses card-only kiosks and cubbies to feed its hungry fans.
“Our customer is anyone who likes the speed and certainty of not having to wait in line,” says Drummond who acknowledges customers can order, receive and eat their customized quinoa bowls without any human interaction. Tim O’Callaghan says he’s eaten at Eatsa almost every day for weeks. “The automation is a bonus,” says O’Callaghan, “as for the social interaction, there are always people waiting for their food and many of them are blown away by how cool the process is so you end up feeling pretty good watching their reactions.” Eatsa has three California locations and is opening two East Coast locations (in Washington, D.C. and New York City) this fall.
Hungry for a foot-long hotdog or an order of cheesy bread? Look to the skies. Flirtey, a Nevada-based drone delivery service, made high-flying history this July and August with its partnerships with 7-Eleven and Domino’s. Test deliveries in heavily insulated boxes were dropped off at locations in Nevada and New Zealand.
Flirtey CEO, Matt Sweeney, expects to be regularly servicing customers by late 2017. Pouncer is another UAV (unmanned air vehicle) making headlines for its culinary prowess. Billed as an “edible” drone, Pouncer was designed by England-based Windhorse Aerospace to be flown into war zones and disaster areas. One pouncer can carry enough provisions to feed 50 people and its components can be broken down and used for kindling for cooking. The company hopes to be making routine drops by late 2017.
No need to tip the bartender if you order your cosmo from the bionic bar on Royal Caribbean cruises. After making its debut in 2014, the bionic bar is now on four of the company’s most popular ships. Guests use a tablet to place their orders—choosing from a total of 10,100 possible combinations—and then the bionic bar’s robotic arms muddle, shake, slice, stir and strain. Customers can monitor the status of their orders on digital screens next to the bar.
The machine, manufactured by an Italian company, Makr Shakr, can produce up to two drinks per minute. Its for-rent mobile unit debuted in 2015 and has made appearances at events ranging from a concert in Bucharest to a Microsoft convention in London and the South Beach Food & Wine Festival.
Traditional Italian chefs may be rolling over in their graves. Boasting the world’s first technology that cooks its deliveries en route, Zume Pizza is replacing the traditional stone pizza oven with 56 ovens on wheels. This "Baked on the Way" approach is the brainchild of Xbox and Shake Shack alums who believe their product, which requires less preservatives, is among the freshest in the delivery space. The pies are made in the company’s main kitchen where “proprietary pizza-making robots” work alongside human chefs. They’re then transferred to the delivery vehicles’ ovens where they’re pulled out of the oven as you open the front door.
The company made its first deliveries in Sept. in Mountain View, Calif. and expansion plans are in the works. The pizzas start around $15, delivery is free-- and tipping the bot is highly discouraged.
Chartwell’s Meal Vending Machines
Is the hairnet-wearing lunch lady dishing out mac’n cheese about to retire to the history books? It’s possible.
With the implementation of Chartwells K12 vending machines, schools are now able to serve nine USDA-complaint entrees in as few as 20 seconds. The cashless machines debuted in Stamford, Conn. schools four years ago, and Chartwells is working on expanding to schools across the country. In less than a year after implementing a K12 vending machine, one school reported a 15 percent revenue growth without adding labor costs.
Of course, employees are still needed for frequent restocking of fresh options like chicken wraps, garden salads, veggies and hummus, fruit and milk. A mobile menu app provides students and staff with the menu of the day and nutritional information.
McDonald’s of the Future
The core menu of the iconic golden arches restaurant isn't changing any time soon, but the interiors of some McDonald’s restaurants are now unrecognizable.
After seeing great success in Europe, Australia and Canada, McDonald’s is testing its digital kiosks and table-service in major U.S. markets like New York, Florida and Chicago. Chicago’s River North location has been dubbed a “McDonald’s of the Future” and, so far, the company says its double-sided digital kiosks have been a hit with diners who can customize and pay for their orders without uttering a single word. McDonald’s is careful to point out that these kiosks are not robots nor are they replacing human labor.
Instead, the company insists they’re providing an opportunity to focus on new roles, like table service. “Technology may change the nature of the jobs in the restaurant,” says McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook, “but it gives us more opportunity to bring that manpower front-of-house—making for a better dining experience.”
Katie Jackson is a travel writer. When she's not working, she's chasing after a Leonberger named Zeus.