Do AI-powered food robots put human jobs at risk?

Quick serve is going to the robots thanks to these new machines. Here's why humans stand a chance.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

Throughout the pandemic, there's been major interest in contactless, automation-driven consumer experiences in the food industry. Robots like Flippy from Miso Robotics, an autonomous line cook, and Briggo, a robotic barista, are gaining purchase among customers whose attitude toward automation has been rewired amid fears of contamination and an expectation of rapid service.

What's clear is that the robots are coming to the food industry. The food robotics market, estimated at $1.9 billion in 2020, is expected to reach $4.0 billion by 2026. Advances in robotics and AI, coupled with operational cost advantages and major consumer and retailer shifts, are driving the food industry to more rapidly embrace automation. So what does that mean for human workers?

I put the question to the CEO of Blendid, a company whose first product is an autonomous juice kiosk that uses robotics, machine vision, artificial intelligence, and fresh ingredients to create customized smoothies. Vipin Jain, who co-founded the California-based business, disagrees with those who claim that robots put human jobs at risk in the food service industry. As a robotics advocate, Jain clearly has a stake in how his company's robots are perceived. Still, his answers are an insightful peek at how robots are being sold to businesses and consumers and what the future of food service may well look like in the months and years to come.

GN: What's your sales pitch to partners like Walmart and Jamba, who may not have had integrated in-store robotics before?

Vipin Jain: Our conversations with partners usually start with the business opportunity — robotic platforms like Blendid offer a new way to serve their customers while strengthening their brand offerings. Blendid brings fresh food options that are healthy, delicious, personalized to a consumer's unique taste and preferences, and available any time of the day. We unlock the full potential of food service. And Blendid does all this while making it cost effective for consumers and economically very attractive for operators. Our robots are win/win for all! 

GN: Contactless is obviously having a moment. What are the other benefits to businesses and consumers of a robotic kiosk?

Vipin Jain: We think the surge in interest is here to stay. The excitement around robotics in the food service industry goes well beyond the current contactless craze. Robotic food kiosks offer a wide range of benefits to both the operators and their retail guests.  

From the operator's perspective, the benefits of deploying autonomous robotic kiosks such as Blendid are all tightly tied to supporting their business. Automated robotic food platforms provide cost-effective and efficient fresh food options, opening the door for 24/7 operation with very minimal downtime to quickly restock fresh ingredients. The ability to offer fresh food in areas where it may not make operational sense otherwise, due to a small footprint or low traffic, opens new revenue streams. In fact, we've provided businesses (operators) with a very attractive unit economics – with cash-on-cash return of less than 18 months … almost unheard of in the food service industry!

And from the perspective of their guests, the number one benefit that Blendid offers is easier access to healthy and delicious food, at odd hours of the day when there aren't many food options. We see this at Walmart where more than a third of our sales are in after-hours. Consumers enjoy the safe, contactless ordering and order-ahead capabilities so they can schedule their order in advance and pick it up exactly when they want it. Better yet, that food can be customized to their unique taste and health preferences at affordable prices. Customizing food is normally extremely costly and time consuming with human operators, but easy with robots. Those cost savings are then passed on to consumers.

Robots also add a bit of fun, we could even call it retail food entertainment. Consumers (adults and kids alike) LOVE watching our robot make their drink, pour it, and deliver it to them, right in front of their eyes. And when our robot has a little free time, it can even dance to some popular tunes! It builds confidence in food preparation while bringing a little delight in an otherwise busy or stressful day.

GN: Clearly one of the things missing here is the human server. But it sounds like you think robots like yours aren't a threat to humans, who will continue to play an integral role. Can you elaborate?

Vipin Jain: The human server element continues to be a challenge for the food industry. Food service operators have been struggling to properly staff their operations for years. This was a major issue before the pandemic and has become worse post-pandemic. People who were doing entry-level food preparation or line cook jobs have moved on to other jobs such as driving for DoorDash or Amazon or working in construction, services or at other tech companies. In many areas, thousands of minimum-wage, food preparation jobs are going unstaffed, which is slowing down the recovery for food operators. 

This is where robotic food automation can help. Robots can handle the routine work, and humans can lead the interactive and specialized skill work – such as daily restocking and cleaning, interacting with consumers, deploying, monitoring and servicing robots, and building or programming these robots. Some of these jobs require minimal training and can provide better pay and lifestyle.  Adding robots into the mix might also help entice food service workers to jump back into the workforce as it adds a layer of support for some of the more tedious jobs — who wouldn't want to say they work with robots?!?

In addition, big stores like Walmart or franchise operators like Jamba are in a constant battle to recruit, train and retain staff — especially when it comes to food service and food prep roles. The robots add a layer of consistency that can help reduce the costs and headaches often associated with trying to fill (and repeatedly refill) these roles.

The shift to embracing robotics in the food service industry is not about robots taking away jobs; it's about robots filling jobs that can't be filled and then opening up a range of new jobs for humans. Like with any technology advancement, roles and opportunities will change, but there will always be a need for human workers. We believe human capital is too precious to waste on routine and repetitive tasks.

GN: Do you think your customers, as well as consumers, are more primed for consumer-facing robots than they have been in the past? Where are we in the adoption curve and what do you think will happen over the next, say, five years?

Vipin Jain: Absolutely. Automated food solutions were growing before the pandemic, but the COVID-19 crisis poured gasoline on the fire. Business continuity became a challenge for many food service and retail companies. Suddenly businesses had to figure out how to offer food safely in a contactless manner and cost effectively.  The pandemic has pushed up the timeline considerably.  Based on the exponentially growing interest Blendid is receiving from prospective operators worldwide, mounting staffing challenges, and robotics cost reductions, I expect food robots to be pervasive within 5 years.  What used to be forward-thinking has become the current-thinking. This is the new "normal" for food service. 

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