Robots are coming to the quick serve space, and it's been fascinating to track the progression across various food offerings. In the latest iteration, smoothie purveyor Jamba is expanding its partnership with food automation firm Blendid on additional robotic smoothie kiosks.
Last year I spoke with the co-founder of Blendid, Vipin Jain, about the moment contactless service is having since the onset of the pandemic and the business proposition a company like Blendid can offer potential partners.
"From the operator's perspective, the benefits of deploying autonomous robotic kiosks such as Blendid are all tightly tied to supporting their business," said Jain. "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!"
Jamba, which along with Walmart is one of Blendid's early partners, certainly seems to be seeing the business case. The partnership is expanding to introduce new kiosks on college campuses, part of an interesting trend industry-wide of using colleges as automation testbeds.
"Since the beginning, we have wanted to test the Jamba by Blendid kiosks on college campuses. We know there is increasing demand for more ways to access our products and by introducing our robotic kiosks at colleges and universities across the country, we are making it even easier for consumers to enjoy smoothies 24/7," said Geoff Henry, president of Jamba. "It has been rewarding to see guests engage enthusiastically with our kiosks, and we are looking forward to speaking with future operators who are interested in testing with us and learning more about the opportunity."
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. A tight labor market and well-publicized worker shortages among restaurant employers are also hastening the shift.
"Automated food solutions were growing before the pandemic," Jain told me, "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."
All to say, these shifts are the beginning of a much larger change afoot. Expect to see robots behind the counter sooner than expected.