Chef Machine Takes on New York

Techy new equipment is revving up Big Apple dining spots.

July 23, 2019

NEW YORK—More New York City restaurants are using machines to help prepare a wide range of foods and beverages, reports The Wall Street Journal. In some cases, the machines are replacing employees who would normally handle the task.

New machines can do things like slice a sushi roll into eight uniform pieces or mix the perfect happy-hour cocktail. And when no machine is available for the job, some restaurateurs design their own automated solution.

Nat Loganathan is owner of Dalup Modern Indian, a new fast-casual restaurant in Chelsea. He used his engineering and computer background to build a device that makes dosa, a popular crepe-like Indian food. He built the machine in his Connecticut garage from assorted parts, including a motor shaft assembly from a lawn mower, for less than $3,000, and he’s pleased with the consistent quality of the dosa it makes.

“A machine doesn’t have a bad day,” he told the Journal.

But Loganathan’s self-made machine is a small affair compared with equipment used at the two fast-casual MakiMaki Sushi restaurants in Midtown Manhattan. The dining spots are relying on tens of thousands of dollars of technology to handle tasks ranging from mixing rice with vinegar, a key step in sushi preparation, to slicing the finished rolls.

Kevin Takarada, MakiMaki’s owner, once worked as a sushi chef in his parents’ Miami Beach restaurant and agrees that machines produce a more consistent product, plus they can work faster. His Japanese-made automated systems can produce about 300 rolls an hour, or about 50% more than his small culinary team could prepare by hand.

At Social Drink & Food, the bar at Midtown’s Yotel hotel, one advantage of using a cocktail-making machine is reducing waste. The bar’s machine measures the amount of liquor in each drink to the smallest fraction, which means no over-pouring. Cocktail-making machines start at $28,000, according to Smart Bar USA, the company behind the devices.

While restaurant automation has many benefits, the main one is keeping labor costs down, said Arlene Spiegel, a hospitality consultant. That is especially critical at a time when New York dining spots are feeling financial pressure due to increases in the mandated minimum wage.

Spiegel said a younger, tech-savvy generation of customers has no issue with robots preparing their food. “They’re used to having machines take the place of real live experiences,” she said.

But restaurateurs haven’t replaced all staff members with machines. At the Yotel bar, for example, only certain orders are prepared by machine, and customers always have the option to interact with a bartender if they choose.

Some chefs remain wary, saying machines might work in some settings, but they have their limitations. Kazushige Suzuki, head sushi chef at Sushi Ginza Onodera, a Midtown Japanese restaurant, said a machine can’t prepare food with certain nuances in mind. “Doing it by hand is much better and more respectful of the ingredient,” he said.