Can Robot Restaurants Offer a More Human Touch?

In a world where robots work in the kitchen, human staff might reassume the roles they once had.

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Kernel is the newest New York restaurant sensation โ€” but not for the usual reasons. February 12th, Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle Mexican Grill, opened the first robot-ran concept restaurant in New York.

Rather than creating a soulless, clinical environment, robotic chefs may be the best way to bring a human touch back to fast food.

You know the scenario: You walk into your favorite fast-food restaurant, and before you even see the counter, huge glass screens tower over you. You order and pay for your meal while navigating the menu on the greasy glass front, only to pick up your meal from the server, who barely even looks up at you.

It's not their fault. Many are struggling to manage customer orders alongside online orders for delivery services, and then there's the drive-thru, too. Despite recent wage increases in some states, many McDonald's and KFC servers, who can't take tips, feel they don't make enough. There's no denying it, though. Fast food has lost the human touch.

A New Concept

Ells thinks it's time to try something new. By replacing the robotic humans with actual robots, fast food servers can do what they do best โ€” serve the customers.

Kernel is Ells' robot-driven, vegan fast food restaurant. Located at 315 Park Avenue South, New York, this initial site is a proof of concept, but it's clear that Ells sees it catching on. In fact, plans are underway to open more Kernels across Manhattan.

So, how do you order at an automated restaurant? Online, of course! The Kernel app lets you make an order and gives you a precise pick-up time, down to the minute. Customers only need to be inside the restaurant for a second if they arrive on time. A code opens the locker containing the order, and you're on your way to your favorite park bench. Kernel doesn't have seating, although some customers stand inside and eat their food.

You won't find much from Chipotle's menu here. There's no burrito or fajita bowl. Kernel is serving up vegan burgers and salads, so it's not difficult to imagine eating standing up. But, Ells sees this first restaurant as the start of something much bigger.

"I think there's an opportunity to build Kernel, the restaurant brand. But this platform is very, very efficient. And I think the resulting economic model is one people will want to copy." His prototype location only employs three people.

Licensing the underlying technology to other restaurants would be a huge financial win for Kernel.

How Does a Robot Make a Burger?

No, it's not the opening of a Gen Z joke. It's the result of advanced German engineering and a robotic arm packed with sensors and powered by a specialized computer. Kuka, the firm that makes the robotic arm, also makes similar devices used in automobile manufacturing and the medical industry. At Kernel, the $40,000 robotic arm flips burgers โ€” but does it with precision.

The ingredients, which are delivered hourly by e-bike, are put into a specially designed oven by the Kuka arm. When cooked to perfection, it assembles the meal and part-packages it. A human helps with the packaging and places it into the correct locker.

In time, the whole process will be fully automated, with autonomous vehicles delivering ingredients and robots taking over the packaging of meals.

Where's the Human Touch?

Presently, humans are there to keep the robots in check and troubleshoot when problems arise, such as when a falling potato recently caused the entire production line to stop.

However, Ells' role in the restaurant tells a different story. Since the restaurant opened, Ells has been chatting with customers in the storefront, telling them what to try if they usually order fajitas and explaining the process and how the app works. He's working the front of the house.

Patrons expect to find a Maรฎtre d' or headwaiter at fine dining establishments.

Recently, the video of two friends ' stop at a roadside McDonald's went viral. It was filmed in a vlog style, which might seem nothing special, but this video was made in the 1980s โ€” when cameras were bulky, and the word vlog didn't exist. After watching the footage, viewers can't help but feel that the world has lost something.

There are no screens anywhere, and as they chat with the servers about their order, the servers' uniforms come into the frame. The McDonald's staff are wearing white shirts, black ties, and waistcoats, making McDonald's look more like a fancy hotel.

Perhaps this video went viral because people wished their world had retained a little of this formality. In a world where robots work in the kitchen, human staff might reassume the role they once had โ€” talking to customers, recommending dishes, and improving the dining experience. Imagine that.

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