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Robots And The Resilient Spirit Of “Techspitality” In The Food Business

Now that Amazon’s “Alexa” has become a daily partner in our lives, with 83 million plus users and more than 100 million devices sold, proving we have accepted face and voice recognition, artificial and predictive intelligence, as well as following directions from the Google Maps lady, its about time we accept robots making our latte and autonomous vehicles delivering our food.

The world of automation and robotics have jumped off engineering drawing boards and moved into restaurant dining rooms and kitchens. Not to mention the halls of congress and the cross-hairs of legislative policy wonks. The time has come to add Food Technology to the growing list of priorities in your food company’s strategic plans.

While gawking my way through the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, the physical space dedicated to health, wellness and food was noticeably larger, despite the significantly smaller number of attendees due to COVID.

Entire teams of robots were on display, predominantly executing physical operating tasks and showboating their ability to clean your seating area, pointing out menu specials, retrieving and serving orders, processing your payment and sanitizing your seat when you’ve departed.

The prominent physical activity that robots can provide does come with a cost. The customary pleasant chit-chat and banter/engagement with the waiter or waitress is rather dry and emotionless – talking back is not entertaining. Programming robots for the social engagement that hospitality enables is not far away however, still a galaxy far, far away from being accepted – at least by this human.

Despite the lack of warm and friendly exchanges, comprehending and activating the future trends that appear to be knocking on our favorite restaurants’ operation is something we should seriously not ignore. Especially when restaurant profit margins continue to be a challenge to operations of all sizes.

Advances in the area of food tech are beginning to make their way into commercial environments with growth of prototypes that reflect the same accelerated innovation trends found in food ingredients and sustainability efforts. Futuristic appliances with the capacity to interact, not only with each other but with culinary teams, can be found tracking everything from ingredient inventory to guiding menu development. The restaurant kitchen of the future is here today and goes beyond smart appliances and savvy food processing equipment.

Food tech does not stop there however, companies like Hyundai have dedicated years of work perfecting artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning resulting in the expanded capabilities of stationary and autonomous robots.

It appears that the pandemic accelerated the deployment of robots in the preparation and serving of food, making the back and front of the house much more efficient, leaving Chef’s with no one to yell at when something is not quite to their satisfaction.

Not to be outdone by Chefs, bartending will not ever be the same again either, as a conversational AI bartender demonstrated the ability to mix 120 drinks per hour recently. How’s that for a bar keep who can lend a sympathetic ear and not miss a beat pouring drinks. Beyond the walls of a restaurant, how you get your food is also being impacted by advances in technology.

The incredible move to food delivery during the pandemic has also accelerated technology applications beyond on-line ordering platforms like Door Dash, Uber Eats and others. Delivery is about to take on a new meaning when drones and autonomous vehicles (Ottonomy Inc.) take to air, land and sea in the very near future.

The machinery is available and companies like Amazon, Tesla, and even the pizza companies (Domino’s) are working on legislation that grants permits so they may pioneer these new environmentally advantaged methods to get you your food order.

It has been a fast start to a new year with great promise in the business of food, despite a world pandemic that shut us all down yet catapulted unfathomable advances in food technology. My recent tech adventure peaked my curiosity to get beyond the restaurant and explore the tremendous progress being made in how food is grown and harvested – another area that definitely requires our attention and reporting. The world of indoor gardens/vertical farming, the emergence of weeding robots that reduce the use of pesticides, (John Deere) the ability to produce vegan cheese made from almond “milk” and the progress made with animal-free food alternatives – first milk protein without animals (Perfect Day) are all areas that food tech is influencing and will be topics of interest coming your way in future articles.