Restaurant Chain Hires Robots to Speed Up Service

From a Wall Street Journal story by Heather Haddon headlined “Sweetgreen Hires Kale-Shooting Robots to Speed Up Service”:

The key to shorter lines and higher profits at one restaurant chain: a salad-making robot.

Fast-casual chain Sweetgreen in May opened its first restaurant staffed by a proprietary robot that shoots kale, cheese and other ingredients down tubes into bowls traveling on a conveyor belt. A handful of employees add finishing touches, such as spiced cashews.

The system can slash the number of workers and time it takes Sweetgreen to make a bowl by more than half, executives said. Eventually, the company intends for salad-making robots to staff all of its new restaurants, working alongside human employees.

Sweetgreen is preparing to center future restaurants around the system, which can take up 10% of the location’s floor space, with workers preparing ingredients for its tubes and others dispensing the meals it makes.

“A lot of other companies are trying to figure out how to add automation to their experience and are not willing to start over,” said Sweetgreen CEO Jonathan Neman, while eating a salad recently in a Naperville, Ill., location, the first to feature the automated system. “I’m willing to blow the whole thing up.”

Restaurant chains are striving to become more efficient as food, labor and other costs remain high, and staffing tight. Chili’s, which is owned by Brinker International, is scrutinizing operations down to the way workers prepare shrimp, while Wendy’s studies workers’ footsteps to design more efficient kitchens.

Restaurant chains for years have experimented with automation, though robotics haven’t taken off as they have in manufacturing and retail. Chopping lettuce and flipping burgers involves working with soft, squishy ingredients and a variety of tasks that are hard for a machine to duplicate.

Wall Street analysts are generally upbeat on Sweetgreen robots to help the company’s profits in the long term but want more details about how the chain will mass produce the salad-making machine and make sure it runs without hiccups.

“It will be very expensive and hard to scale,” said Robert Goldin, co-founder of the Pentallect food consulting firm, who thinks Sweetgreen’s food quality is superior to most of its rivals but isn’t convinced of its robotic experiments.

Sweetgreen’s robotics bet is bigger than others, and so is its need. The pandemic crippled the chain’s mainly urban operations, driving same-store sales down 26% in 2020. Sales have improved in the past year, despite price increases. But the company has yet to turn a profit since going public in 2021, and its stock trades for around a fifth of its public-market debut of $52 a share.

The company last year closed a Los Angeles office, laid off staff and streamlined its management to drive down costs. Sweetgreen is building new suburban locations and adding more hot food to its salad-heavy menu, aiming to draw more customers.

About six years ago, Sweetgreen started talking with four Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates who ran a small restaurant tech startup called Spyce, centered on an automated system that cooked food and prepared bowls. In 2021, Sweetgreen bought Spyce in a deal valued at about $50 million at the time to bring the company’s technology and expertise to creating its salads.

It took Spyce engineers around two years to design a robot that could squirt dressing to order, apportion eggs and handle soft ingredients, some of which initially got stuck in the machine’s tubes.

Take for instance goat cheese. “It’s not just one big ball, it’s crumbled on your salad which is a really big deal,” said Michael Farid, Sweetgreen’s vice president of automation and one of Spyce’s co-founders, as salad bowls rotated around the Sweetgreen robot.

Other restaurant companies are pursuing their own automation experiments. White Castle is expanding its test of a “Flippy” robot that fries potatoes, onions and other food to more restaurants this month, and Chipotle Mexican Grill Is Testing an automated system to dispense ingredients into bowls and salads to speed up service.

Casual dining chain Kura Sushi uses robots to apportion rice for rolls, helping to reduce its need for sushi chefs and to add new locations faster.

“We know that it’s unrealistic for us to get 5-, 10-, 20-year trained sushi masters, so that’s why we use these robots to get the best possible results,” said Benjamin Porten, Kura’s head of system development, while showing the automated machines in the kitchen of the chain’s Oak Brook, Ill., location.

McDonald’s tested a robotic fryer in 2019 but eventually shelved it. “The idea of robots and all those things, while it maybe is great for garnering headlines, it’s not practical in the vast majority of restaurants,” McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski said last year on a conference call.

At the Naperville Sweetgreen during a recent lunch rush, workers oversaw chopped vegetables, cooked meats, cheeses and other ingredients flowing through the robot’s cylindrical dispensers.

After customers punch in their order online or through a screen at the restaurant, the system deposits ingredients into bowls and plates, and then spins the meals to mix them. A worker added ingredients such as avocado before placing the entrees on a shelf for pickup.

Marion Bond Ruthig, a Naperville resident who runs a local nonprofit, said she appreciated the system’s speed during a recent Sweetgreen visit. “The robots making the bowls are really cool,” she said.

One or two people are needed to assemble salads alongside Sweetgreen’s robot during an average lunch rush, compared with the traditional seven to nine, the company said. The robot can make a bowl in less than five minutes, while a person can take 15 minutes for an individual order.

The company believes its robots will pay off in the long term, enabling its restaurants to run with leaner staff and reducing turnover among workers. The system should also help avoid order mix-ups, executives said, with about 70% of customers customizing their bowls.

Sweetgreen has been developing its robot in a Charleston, Mass., laboratory, and the company is talking with contractors to mass produce them as it prepares to grow to 1,000 restaurants by 2030, it said.

“We are 100% in on automation,” Neman said.

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