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Kitchen Automation Turns Digital Order Volume From Challenge To Opportunity

It is no secret that, as newly vaccinated consumers return to restaurants for in-person dining while digital order volumes remain elevated, operators are struggling to hire enough workers to meet the demand. Restaurants are offering signing bonuses and raising salaries, and many are seeking out technological solutions to address the issue, using efficiency-driving tools to maximize the capabilities of their existing workforce. Of course, digital tools are also in part to blame — or, depending on how one looks at it, to credit — for the current situation.

“Part of the labor shortage is also driven by digital orders, which grew tremendously during the pandemic and aren’t going away — so digital orders means that you can get many, many more orders instantaneously than you could ever get with a walk-in, a call-in, or a sit-down customer base,” Clayton Wood, chief executive officer at Picnic, told PYMNTS in an interview. “It’s an operational challenge … but it’s an opportunity for those who can get the right technology applied.”

Picnic, a robot-as-a-service (RaaS) company that creates food preparation automation systems, recently raised $16.3 million in Series A funding to grow its team and its operations, with investors noting the promise of this sort of kitchen automation technology amid the pressing concerns of the labor shortage. The company is currently rolling out its flagship Picnic Pizza System to restaurants and other venues.

Capturing The Sales Opportunity

Wood notes that the labor shortage “predates the pandemic,” but that, in light of the ordering surge, the issue has grown “more acute,” creating “a lot more demand for automation.”

Picnic’s pizza-making robot assembles the pizza, once the dough is prepared, topping it with sauce, cheese and additional toppings. This is the sort of task that is simple but repetitive, and while it does not take very much skill, a rushed, inconsistent job will be clearly noticeable to consumers. As Wood puts it, “You end up with bad pizza, food waste, workers who get burned out and quit, and you have to train new workers.”

Without automation, he said, it is extremely difficult to fulfill high order volumes with consistent quality “unless you throw just a whole bunch of people at the problem.” Businesses that are not able to hire enough workers miss the sales opportunity and risk frustrating hungry customers.

Conversely, with automation, Wood said, “They can see a more efficient, more profitable operation that can create more interesting jobs, and have a more successful business.”

The Kitchen Tech Mismatch

In the past year, the number and types of food preparation robots has grown immensely, as consumer-facing robots begin to roam restaurant dining rooms as waiters. DoorDash recently acquired food prep automation company Chowbotics, and since then the company’s Sally salad-making robot has continued to expand to new locations, as a cereal-dispensing take on the robot has appeared on college campuses.

One of the key problems in food prep automation technology right now, Wood believes, is the “mismatch between the technical task and the technology.” In general, as he sees it, competitors tend to either build overly complex machines for simple tasks or under-capable machines for complex tasks.

“If you’re doing something really simple, but you’ve got a sixth-degree robotic arm that could build a car, and I’m not going to call out any competitors,” he said, “that’s probably not a scalable thing where it’s going to be cost-effective in long run.”

Similarly, he noted, the trend of “comprehensive kitchen technologies” that are “trying to do hundreds of thousands of recipes with a couple of arms” is also ill-conceived. On the other hand, he said, Picnic’s robots are set up to do work that’s “not complicated, it’s just hard”—repetitive tasks that require a degree of detail-orientation.

Beyond The Traditional Restaurant

Wood notes that the rise in ghost kitchens grows the need for this sort of automation, as restaurants begin branching off their digital order fulfillment into separate businesses.

“[Ghost kitchens are] selling either prepared food ready to eat or prepared food ready to cook — that food doesn’t need to be prepared in a restaurant, and that’s a real change,” he said. “Now you’ve got the opportunity to be producing much higher volumes much more efficiently than you can do in a restaurant, where you’re trying to do a really wide variety of dishes with a very small team.”

Beyond restaurants and ghost kitchens, the company is looking to integrate its devices into any area in which there is demand for ready-to-eat foods. He cites corporate cafeterias, college campuses, K-12 schools, stadiums, convention centers and ski resorts as the types of venues to which Picnic is looking to grow.

Smaller venues that are not ready to make the upfront investment in new technologies can benefit from Picnic’s RaaS business model. Operators pay a monthly fee to use the hardware and software. “That monthly fee, in almost every case, will be well below your alternative, your existing operation,” Wood said, “because you’re going to save money on food waste … on labor management … on raw workload of your labor.”

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