Robots Run the Kitchen

From food prep to sanitation to delivery, robots are increasingly being used in retail.

June 25, 2020

HONG KONG—Sometimes an extra robotic hand makes all the difference. Hestia Kitchen in Hong Kong is both a smart kitchen making and serving Chinese cuisine, and a lab where engineers research, design and develop state-of-the-art technologies in food science, automation and robotics.

As seen in a Bloomberg video, robots created by the Hestia team work in the kitchen doing everything from cooking to delivering meals to diners.

“At Hestia, we don’t just craft robots. We build the kind of wonder that aims to revolutionize the culinary industry,” according to the company’s website.

Hestia Kitchen claims to be the first restaurant in Hong Kong where the food is prepared by robots. It’s small with only two large tables and some bar seating, and most customers order takeaway. Customers use a touch screen to order from the 10-dish menu designed by award-winning chefs for the robots to execute. Choices include four signature stir-fries, three pork-based stir-fries and three steamed dishes. A large window to the kitchen lets customers watch the two robots at work. Humans assist the robots, prepping ingredients and washing up dishes as needed.

A spokesperson for Hestia said the robots are ideal food preparers since they are quick, sanitary and produce a consistent product every time.

This isn’t the first instance in which robots have been used in the foodservice industry. Robots are receiving increasing usage from everything ranging from delivery to coffee brewing and cleaning.

In the Miracle Mile Shops in Las Vegas, Tipsy Robot serves up robot-crafted cocktail orders and delivers them via conveyer belt to bar patrons. Customers order drinks via app (or a touchscreen pre-COVID), creating their own concoctions or choosing drinks from a preset menu. Robotic arms create the cocktails—twisting, shaking and even dancing in the process—in 60 to 90 seconds per drink. The two Tipsy Robots can make up to 120 drinks an hour.

Over in Shanghai, robots are also serving customers drinks, as NACS reported in an Ideas 2 Go feature. Ratio, a fully automated coffee shop in Shanghai, has a drink-making process that is also automated by a robot, allowing customers to choose not only the type of coffee, but the exact temperature and taste profile. Ratio serves 400 drinks per day and more than 50 drinks are on the menu. Similar technology is used at Café X and Briggo in San Francisco to brew coffee for coffee lovers. At Café X, the robots even “dance”.

“We knew a robot could create an exceptional cup of coffee, but we also wanted it to appear warm and friendly,” inventor Henry Hu told CNBC of the Café X robots.

In Bangkok, the Central Food Hall supermarket chain has also tapped into robots to handle another side of operations: cleaning. Brought in to fight off the coronavirus, the robots use UV-C light that reaches 360 degrees around to destroy more than 99.99% of pathogens almost instantaneously. The technology has been considered for use in both the United Kingdom and the U.S.

In the back of supermarkets, robots are being used to restock shelves and “pick-and-pack” online orders for customers. Stores such as Kroger, Giant Eagle, Schnucks, Sedano’s, ShopRite, Albertsons and Stop & Shop have all been investing in the technology, with some of them already using the robotic help. Meanwhile, grocers are also beginning to look at drones for delivery.

Increasingly, robotic drones and delivery vehicles are being used to deliver goods to customers, with demand particularly high in urban environments. With the COVID-19 pandemic speeding up the demand for reliable drone delivery, companies such as Starship Technologies have begun testing and deploying rolling delivery robots in places like college campuses in Fairfax, Virginia, and Milton Keynes in the United Kingdom. Recently, Starship also deployed drones for testing in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The systems allow for customers to make orders using their smartphones and most often, deliveries arrive in hours.