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Lending a (Robotic) Hand

Michael Shapiro | April 9, 2024

Impact | The Originate Initiative

Innovative products and smart automation drive efficiency in food service.

For a fresh look at how AI, robots and more are changing the foodservice industry, Hormel Foods asked journalist Michael Shapiro to investigate the evolving role of automation in the industry.

Despite a decade of ambitious efforts in Silicon Valley, fully autonomous foodservice kitchens remain more concept than reality. Several startups have ventured into creating robot-only kitchens featuring cutting-edge technologies and attracting significant investment. While a few have been successful in the market, many have encountered hurdles, finding their ambitious visions at odds with the practical complexities of real-life kitchen operations. One company spent over $300 million trying to build a machine that could cook a pizza while transporting it to your door. That mobile pizza machine flopped.

Fully automated restaurants may still be in our future, but until then, foodservice providers will be looking for practical products and innovations that can help their human staff save time, improve safety and decrease waste.

National Chain Restaurants Look to Automate

The efficiency of mechanized back-of-house food production can make a big difference during busy times. One national chain recently opened an automated salad assembly line. At one establishment, customers use the company’s app or a kiosk to select their order, then a bowl moves down a conveyor belt as ingredients are added. The company claims this will cut labor costs by half and ensure more precise portions. After the bowl moves down the line, a human worker may add seasonings or a dollop of guacamole.

Another chain is mechanizing production in some of its 3,300 restaurants nationwide. According to a company release, the company’s “automated digital makeline” can create burrito bowls and salads, so human workers can focus on other items such as tacos.

For quick-service restaurants, lunch time is always a challenge. According to one operator, “no matter what you do, you’re gonna get slammed at noon. Even if you could hire 10 people, you just can’t fit them in the restaurant.” Little wonder that owners and operators are looking to machines to help get customer’s meals out faster. Another advantage: robotic food assembly is more accurate, which supports consistency and reduces waste.

“As delivery and takeout become a bigger part of the lunch sales mix — if you’re just getting this brought to you by a delivery service, you never see the process — it really doesn’t matter (if a salad was made by robots), as long as it’s fresh and tastes fine,” said Jonah Bliss, publisher of the online newsletter, OttOmate, a guide to food robotics and automation.

Innovations Already in Practice

Many other foodservice innovations are becoming standard practice. Kickstarted by the Covid pandemic, digital menus available through QR codes free up staff to deliver orders rather than take them. These menus can be instantly updated and can also be sortable. When the kitchen runs out of an item it can be taken off the menu. A restaurant patron can select to see all the vegetarian or gluten-free items or other specialty offerings.

In fast-food restaurants, customers can more commonly order from a kiosk rather than wait in line, reducing the number of people working at registers. This option improves accuracy, both in ordering and payments, and is especially attractive to younger digital natives who adapt easily to new technology.

Robots are also proving effective at inventory management. They can keep tabs on food supplies so when a restaurant or foodservice team at a university or hospital needs, for example, more pre-cooked chicken or tomatoes, orders are placed to keep those and other items in stock.

Machines are becoming ever more adept at hazardous tasks requiring fine motor skills such as flipping a burger, chopping vegetables and dropping potatoes into sizzling oil to make French fries. And yes, robots can create cocktails and pizzas, though these applications haven’t caught on widely. One startup, founded by a former engineer, hasn’t taken off. “As it turns out,” Bliss noted, “it’s easier to launch rockets than it is to stick the landing on robot pizza.”

Listening to Customers

Hormel Foods has a direct salesforce of about 200 people across the country who call on foodservice professionals daily to learn about their processes and develop products that save them time and money and improve quality. “We talk to our clients about the pain points in their preparation and cooking,” said Blake Flores, innovation team lead at Hormel Foods. “We collect all that data and those individual stories, and when we start to hear the same thing from 10 different people from different parts of the country, then we know there’s really something to think about. We work to create possible solutions and we test them. From there we commercialize them, and as a result of that process, our success rate is very high.”

Small innovations can make a difference in the bottom line. For example, cooking bacon has always been a challenge for foodservice kitchens. “Cooking bacon is hard,” said Greg Hetfield, a sales director for convenience and non-commercial at Hormel Foods. “It’s greasy; you burn yourself; you’ve got to deal with the dumping of the grease, the washing of the pans.”

Because of those difficulties, precooked bacon that could be easily and quickly heated, but still tasted great, was always a holy grail. HORMEL® BACON 1™, an innovative product from Hormel Foods increases worker safety and saves time in cooking and cleaning. “When you factor in all the inherent costs of bacon preparation, HORMEL® BACON 1™ oftentimes works out to be less expensive, because it is saving labor costs for the operator and increasing their efficiency and safety,” Flores said. “And it has proven to be one of our greatest innovations ever in Hormel Foodservice.”

Bacon 1 Bacon

Another new product from Hormel Foods, ribbon pepperoni, has made pizza-making in universities and other large commercial kitchens more efficient and less expensive. The idea is simple: instead of having a food-service worker individually place 30-some pepperoni slices on each pie, a cook can quickly sprinkle pepperoni ribbons over the entire pizza.

“The pepperoni ribbons came from a simple idea: What if pepperoni could be handled the same way as shredded mozzarella cheese? You just scoop a handful and spread it across the pie,” Flores said. While saving a few minutes of labor on each pizza might not seem like a major innovation, when a university is preparing food for tens of thousands of hungry students, such advances can make a big difference.

What’s Ahead

Mobile robots delivering meals have elicited excitement from the recipients of their savory cargo as well as annoyance from pedestrians who’d rather not share the sidewalk. Driverless cars may soon be a key delivery vehicle as well. Some of these innovations evoke the frictionless world of “The Jetsons” — others look good on paper but don’t work as well in real life. We haven’t seen much drone delivery yet, but as with the innovations in that frictionless Jetson world, it might be just around the corner.