Even before the global COVID-19 pandemic, there was talk of robots entering the foodservice industry. The labour market has been historically tight, and automation promised a streamlined, cost-effective approach. Accuracy and speed of service were other carrots for innovation-forward concepts to chase.
All these things mattered to the American fast-food chain White Castle when it engaged Miso Robotics roughly 15 months ago, VP Jamie Richardson pointed out that this was before the world changed completely. The realities of a coronavirus-saddled landscape didn’t dilute White Castle’s interest in Flippy, an autonomous grilling and frying kitchen assistant.
“As the pandemic came through and forced so many of us to press pause on different projects, this was absolutely one we knew we wanted to march forward with. Maybe even faster than we might have because we see it as something that meets a need,” explained Richardson.
White Castle announced a planned pilot with Miso Robotics to accelerate the adoption of artificial intelligence and robotics throughout the 99-year-old, family-owned chain. White Castle will introduce the new version of Flippy, Robot-on-a-Rail (or ROAR) into kitchens for testing and future integration.
The notion has taken on added importance of late. Automation creates an avenue for reduced human contact with food during the cooking process, decreasing the potential for transmission of food pathogens. It also enables workers to socially distance more effectively than if the line was packed.
“It does feel like we’re entering an era where less touch is going to be really significant and important,” said Richardson.
White Castle has said that the move won’t replace any of its 10,000 employees, something it’s communicated to frontline workers throughout the process. Rather, it expects Flippy ROAR to free up employees for customer-experience driven tasks. The chain says more than one in four of its employees have been with the company for 10 or more years.
Miso Robotics introduced the prototype for Flippy ROAR at the beginning of the year based on feedback from quick-service operators. The goal was to move Flippy to an upside-down rail. It can now be installed under a standard kitchen hood, where Flippy moves along a line of kitchen equipment, out of the way of other cooks and employees.
White Castle said the pilot will look at speeds in production, taste, quality, and operational optimisation with backend point-of-sale integration. Flippy ROAR will see if it can improve employee and food preparation.
“We’ve been consistently focused on innovation,” noted Richardson. “I’d say the last four or five years we’ve really concentrated a lot on creating the kitchen of tomorrow today. So, when we learned about Miso Robotics and Flippy, that conversation got started. And we’ve been very impressed, it’s been a great partnership and we’re excited to take it to the next step.”