Virus Outbreak-Robot Cooks

A technician makes an adjustment to a robot at Miso Robotics’ White Castle test kitchen in Pasadena, Calif. Robots that can flip burgers, make salads and even bake bread are in growing demand as virus-wary kitchens try to put some distance between workers and customers.

HAYWARD, California (AP) — Robots that can cook — from flipping burgers to baking bread — are in growing demand as virus-wary kitchens try to put some distance between workers and customers.

Starting this fall, the White Castle burger chain will test a robot arm that can cook french fries and other foods. The robot, dubbed Flippy, is made by Pasadena, California-based Miso Robotics.

White Castle and Miso have been discussing a partnership for about a year. Those talks accelerated when COVID-19 struck, said White Castle Vice President Jamie Richardson.

Richardson said the robot can free up employees for other tasks like disinfecting tables or handling the rising number of delivery orders. A touch-free environment that minimizes contact is also increasingly important to customers, he said.

“The world’s just reshaped in terms of thoughts around food safety,” Richardson said.

Flippy currently costs $30,000, with a $1,500 monthly service fee. By the middle of next year, Miso hopes to offer the robot for free but charge a higher monthly fee.

Robot food service was a trend even before the coronavirus pandemic, as hospitals, campus cafeterias and others tried to meet demand for fresh, customized options 24 hours a day while keeping labor costs in check. Robot chefs appeared at places like Creator, a burger restaurant in San Francisco, and Dal.komm Coffee outlets in South Korea.

Now, some say, robots may shift from being a novelty to a necessity. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says the risk of getting COVID-19 from handling or consuming food outside the home is low. Still, there have been numerous outbreaks among restaurant employees and patrons.

“I expect in the next two years you will see pretty significant robotic adoption in the food space because of COVID,” said Vipin Jain, the co-founder and CEO of Blendid, a Silicon Valley startup.

Blendid sells a robot kiosk that makes a variety of fresh smoothies. Customers can order from a smartphone app and tweak the recipe if they want more kale or less ginger, for example.

Only a handful are now operating around San Francisco, but since the pandemic began, Blendid has started contract discussions with hospitals, corporations, shopping malls and groceries.

“What used to be forward-thinking — last year, pre-COVID — has become current thinking,” Jain said.

Robot cooks haven’t always been successful. Spyce, a Boston restaurant with a robot-run kitchen, closed in November to retool its menu. Zume, a Silicon Valley startup that made pizzas with robots, shut down its pizza business in January. It’s now making face masks and biodegradable takeout containers.

Max Elder, research director of the Food Futures Lab at the Palo Alto, California-based Institute for the Future, is skeptical about the future of food prep robots once the pandemic has eased.

“Food is so personal, and it needs to involve humans,” he said.

Elder is also concerned that focusing on automating food preparation during the pandemic will shift attention from other problems in the food system, like outbreaks among meat industry workers or produce pickers.

“We can’t automate our way out of the pandemic because the pandemic affects much more than what can be automated,” Elder said.

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