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No robo-burgers yet for automators


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Employees making semi-automated breakfast in Manitowoc Foodservice’s fitKitchen.

The more than 3 million U.S. food workers are set to see some radical changes in the workplace as advanced robotics, sensors and artificial intelligence become affordable and even more efficient.

According to a study by consulting firm McKinsey & Co., everyone from food prep workers to waiters to managers and chefs could see an average of 74 percent of their time automated by various digital technologies. What’s more staggering than that number: All of this automation is achievable with demonstrated technology, not some far-off science fiction.

The opportunity for automation behind the counter is enormous, but it won’t be a momentous leap. Like upgrading to LED lights or adding a new efficient appliance, the change will be gradual.

The first steps toward an automated restaurant are the functional upgrades to light timers and manual equipment monitoring. There are a variety of monitoring and control systems out there that keep the basics running. They can shorten training time and save money on energy and equipment maintenance.

Dencor, which offers a system of sensors that puts equipment controls in the cloud, aims to put all the various energy hogs into one pen.

“What you see in many restaurants is all the decisions are siloed,” said Tony Carrella, CEO at Dencor, noting a thermostat example. A restaurant has one thermostat covering the dining room, one in the kitchen and one in the cooler, “but there’s nothing to bridge it with the overall facility.”

Automating heat, air conditioning and when equipment powers on and off means employees aren’t wasting energy or cooking guests. But it also means significant energy savings. Carrella said the Dencor system sheds an average of 15 percent on energy costs in customer businesses.

The equipment monitoring sensors also saves on labor. “Managers don’t have to worry about taking temperatures or the equipment except for cleaning,” said Al Cabrera, a former multi-unit Burger King franchisee and a principal investor in Dencor. “Who knows when the employees leave the fryers going when they shouldn’t be going or the broiler on past the time or they turn it on too early.”

Saving run time, of course, means less maintenance through the life of that fryer or broiler. And sensors can alert operators and managers before a piece of equipment fails to avoid costly outages or spoilage.

A Restaurant Technologies Inc. product takes the labor out of changing fryer oil. Kevin Schlutz, president of Central Iowa KFC Inc., is a fan of efficiency by way of automation. He’s recently upgraded to web-based thermostats and a new equipment-monitoring package. But it was an integrated oil-management system in the company’s 15 restaurants that gave him peace of mind.

“Frankly, I can sleep at night knowing that I don’t have people going out in the dark and trying to dispose of that shortening with a big chance of getting burned or having a big mess in the lot,” said Schlutz, noting that since moving to the system two years ago he has “a lot of very happy food-service workers.”

The system consists of two tanks, a fresh-oil tank and a waste-oil tank, both monitored by sensors. As they draw fresh shortening, they dump it into the waste tank via lines connected to the fryer. Aside from happy, safe workers, the fact that oil isn’t splashing around has saved significant time on cleaning.

The next step toward the restaurant of the future is closer to true automation. But don’t look for deep-frying robots and mechanized arms reaching down from the ceiling to grill chicken. Those gimmicky restaurant contraptions make for great YouTube videos, but they don’t make things much more efficient. Sure, the robot won’t be texting its robo buddies in the cooler, but savvy equipment providers gave up recreating human dexterity long ago. After all, why recreate an arm to grill chicken when it’s easier to redesign the grill?

David Laborde, executive creative and purchasing director at the 53-restaurant quick-service salad concept Salata, was looking for a semi-automated oven for the company commissary.

“While researching new equipment, I was approached by the Rational oven people,” said Laborde. “Of course, they said I should put them in all of our stores.”

At roughly $20,000, putting an automated oven in all 53 restaurants wasn’t exactly a cheap proposition. So Laborde and his team began testing the oven with plans for a pair in the new commissary. He said he quickly saw value in the high-tech appliance and opted to test it in his busiest location.

That location in the cramped subway beneath Houston did the cooking for three smaller locations without hoods or gas. The unit pumped out 300 pounds of chicken each day. “It cut their prep time in half. We had savings in labor, better and more-consistent quality control,” said Laborde. “It was an instant win.”

It was an easier pill to swallow for new stores since it could be lumped into the initial price. But selling franchisees on the oven proved pretty easy as well. “We haven’t dictated this, but we do see that it is the future. Anytime we’ve introduced it to a franchisee they’ve seen the benefits and put it in their plans,” said Laborde.

So far, 20 Salata locations use the Rational oven for grilling chicken, poaching salmon and baking pita chips, falafel and croutons—replacing two appliances. Laborde said one of the greatest benefits of automation was shrinking the labor line.

“I can cook up to 30 to 35 pounds of chicken at once in about a 15 to 16 minute cycle depending on the thickness of the chicken,” said Laborde. “What used to take us three hours of grilling, we can easily do in about 45 minutes.”

So what’s the next step beyond automated appliances, lights and data? According to Paul Hanniffy at Manitowoc Foodservice, a provider of restaurant equipment, the next step is getting all those facets of automation to work in concert.

He said just as the Rational oven replaces an oven and a grill, appliances of the future will replace previous equipment, but also be part of a full-kitchen solution.

“Waste management, moving inventory around the restaurant, cleaning can all be automated,” he said, adding they’re testing the ideas in what Manitowoc Foodservice calls a fitKitchen.

Of course, there is a big problem with automating the cooking too much. What happens to the brand when all the food is made by machine? Even Hanniffy doesn’t want to eat a robo-burger.

“I like to see the burger flipped by hand. Then I like to see my burger hand-assembled,” said Hanniffy. “To get to a high level of automation but also retain the freshness and retain the made-for-you quality, you have to think differently.”

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