Robot restaurants: ‘the fourth industrial revolution’

In the Foodom restaurant in Guangdong, China, there’s not a human member of staff in sight. Instead, every order is taken, and every morsel of food is prepared and served by 46 different types of robots.

Each is a cog in the smooth-running machine of the restaurant. There’s a robot to pull pints and mix cocktails. There’s a robot to welcome guests and seat them. And there’s even a ‘frying robot’ to flip burgers and sizzle bacon. Meals are prepared in the kitchen, plated, and pushed along a conveyor belt above the roof where customers sit; then, as if by magic, the plate drops through a gap in the ceiling right onto your table. And all in a matter of minutes. Totally extraordinary.

In a post-Covid world where food sanitation and contactless hospitality will be a necessity, such restaurants are likely to become more important and popular. And you don’t have to travel all the way to China to experience a robot serving you a burger and chips. There is a robot restaurant brewing right on our doorstep.

Karakuri, London’s new Robot restaurant

Karakuri, a three-year old tech startup based in London, unveiled its first robot prototype last December 2020; the DK-One (it’s almost like these robot names will become as normalised as the iPhone!) should be up and running later this year. Having received a £6.3 million investment, Karakuri is offering London its first ever robotic restaurant experience, where customers can order healthy, personalised food in a robotic canteen.

Up to 18 ingredients will be used in one customised meal; typical serving time from order to consumption will be 3 (!!) minutes; the Karakuri can make a dish every 36 seconds, and up to 360 meals an hour. It’s the height of efficiency and the very definition of fast food. And, thanks to the customization of meals, it promises to be healthy too. They will be able to cater for the growing demand of dietary requirements (like veganism or gluten-free), which current restaurants struggle to accommodate. CEO Barney Wragg of Karakuri told Robotics & Innovation magazine that “the robotic system could just revolutionise the food and hospitality industry in a post-Covid world by minimizing human to-human contact”. It seems we will have to separate eating from having company, which used to be the very reason to visit a restaurant.

Though Foodom is one of the first restaurants in the world to be fully operated by robots, and Karakuri the first of its kind in London, Cobots (robots that work alongside humans) have been used since the 1970s.

In its most basic form a Cobot can be an automated soda machine, or the self-ordering machines like you have in McDonald's, and we have been using these for a long time without thinking much about it.

It is only recently that we have started giving robots a human form.

So does the future of robot restaurants look bright? Indeed it is difficult to imagine a future of food that doesn’t involve some kind of artificial intelligence. But, like most technological advancements, there may be a reaction against having no human interaction. When the Kindle was first introduced: people started to miss the feel of a real paperback: so the trend plateaued slightly. Now people read real books again and the specialist bookstores are thriving.

As for restaurants, people may start to miss that cosy, warm, feeling of chatting to a friendly waiter, or giving compliments to the chef. I know I would.

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