Opinion: The future of work, part II

When I was a kid growing up in New York, my grandfather and I would get on the subway in Brooklyn and get off at the 34th Street station in Manhattan. Sometimes we had a particular destination in mind; sometimes we’d just walk until we saw something that seemed interesting. That’s how, on a certain Saturday, we found ourselves standing outside the Citroen Theater, listening to the sound track from the movie that was being shown inside.


The year was 1956, and I hadn’t thought about that incident until a few weeks ago when I watched Richard Branson take off in his space plane. The movie that my grandfather and I saw was “On the Threshold of Space,” an atypical sci-fi flick from the era of the Cold War and the Space Race. It must have been around noon, and we had to kill about 40 minutes before the next showing, so we walked a couple of blocks to Horn and Hardart’s Automat for lunch.


The Automat was quick and easy because it was self-service, one didn’t wait to be seated, and there was no need to signal the server for a check. The restaurant’s walls were lined with dozens of small, glass doors. The doors were organized by categories, like soup, sandwich, or dessert. Customers looked at the food displayed behind the glass door, and inserted the number of coins required to unlock the door. Then, the customer would reach in, take the item, and either move on to the next series of doors or find a seat at a table.


Although the popular restaurant was called an “automat,” there was nothing “automated” about it. Human beings prepared the food, replaced food on the empty shelves behind the doors, bussed tables that customers hadn’t cleared themselves, and emptied the coin boxes at the end of the day. However, the days of food preparation and service by flesh-and-blood people may be coming to an end.


Robotic cooks


For the past year, White Castle in Merrillville, Indiana, has relied on Flippy, an “employee” that works 23 hours a day at its fry station. Flippy cooks French fries, cheese sticks, and onion rings. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Christopher Mims states that Flippy is an “industrial robot arm sheathed in a grease-proof, white fabric sleeve” that slides along a rail which is attached to the ceiling. It is immune to spatters and spills, as well as fatigue and unsafe food handling. It only has one hour per day “off” for maintenance.


Flippy was developed by Miso Robotics, a software company in Pasadena, CA, which will supply an improved version of the machine — Flippy 2.0 — to ten more White Castle restaurants. But this may be just the first wave of a tsunami to come. Mims points out that, as of the end of May, 2021, there were “more than 1.3 million unfilled job openings at restaurants and hotels.” That’s double the number from one year ago, according to the Department of Labor.


Mims writes, “For many restaurants, surviving the current labor crunch and resulting wage inflation means using self-service ordering kiosks and other tech tools to automate away some customer-facing jobs and streamline things like online ordering.” Many restaurateurs may have to turn to kitchen automation as a way for restaurants, ghost kitchens (areas of food preparation for delivery only), and delivery organizations to save time and money.


The 2020-2021 pandemic


Although these concerns have been in the minds of cooked-food providers for decades, they were brought to the forefront by the coronavirus pandemic. A “perfect storm” was created by a combination of scarce labor, unprecedented demand for take-out and delivery, and decreased profit margins due to the cost of delivery. In turn, that has compelled restaurateurs to consider adopting technology that they may have shied away from in the past.


At the same time, we have witnessed a decrease in the cost of sensors and activators and a corresponding increase in the power and accessibility of the software programs needed to drive automated systems. One prototype, “Tacomation,” is being tested as a replacement for human beings who work behind the counter at restaurants like Chipotle.


Existing challenges


Barney Wragg, CEO of London-based Karakuri Robotics, says that one of the biggest challenges to be faced is how to make machines “that can manipulate…(a) non-conformative, multidimensionsally deformative substance.” For example, think about the difference between cooked and uncooked rice. His DK-One robot is the first pre-production machine that uses the latest technology in sensing and controlling. Mike Butcher, writing for Technology, states that the DK-One is “capable of creating high-quality hot and cold meals, which maximize nutritional benefits… and minimize food waste.”


Christopher Mims adds, “The complexity of cooking is multiplied by the challenges of safe food handling and varied temperatures.” But Karakuri’s robot can create nearly any meal from a yogurt parfait to a green salad, as long as it’s in some kind of bowl. Israel’s Tel-Aviv-based Beastro cooking robot operates on the same everything-in-a-bowl principle. It fills bowls with ingredients from an extruder, then moves them along to spinning machines, cooling machines, or heating machines.

Chowbotics, according to Mims, has partnered with Kellogg to place cereal-dispensing and salad-making machines on college campuses. He says that, in the future, “our meals might be made inside what are essentially souped-up vending machines.”


Ruth Cowan, a kitchen-automation historian, says that it has long been an aspiration of employers to replace unreliable humans with more reliable machines. And this desire now seems to pair with potential employees who question whether they want to work in food service, eschewing its shifting schedules, relatively low pay, and demanding work load.


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Jim Glynn, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.