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After years of frying and flipping burgers at White Castle locations, Miso Robotics’ autonomous kitchen assistant has a new gig: making tortilla chips for Chipotle. Miso today announced that the fast casual chain is testing “Chippy,” a robot customized to follow the steps for frying Chipotle chips, at the brand’s R&D facility in Irvine, California. Later this year, the companies say, Chippy will be deployed at a Chipotle restaurant in Southern California.

While making tortilla chips might not be the pinnacle of achievement in robotics, the partnership between Miso and Chipotle reflects the restaurant industry’s eagerness to embrace automation technologies. A historic labor shortage is a major factor. According to a February National Restaurant Association report, many restaurant operators expect finding workers to remain difficult until at least 2023 — although the industry’s workforce grew by an estimated 400,000 jobs.

Making tortilla chips

There’s nothing particularly complicated about the recipe for Chipotle’s tortilla chips, which the brand shared on TikTok in 2020. Here’s the steps (via Today.com):

  • Cut up corn tortillas into triangles.
  • Fry the tortilla pieces in hot oil for 50 seconds.
  • Toss the chips in a mixing bowl with a liberal squeeze of lime and sprinkle of salt. Toss again!
  • Finish with more lime and more salt.
  • Portion out the chips — and dig in!

But programming a robot to follow these steps exactly proved to be somewhat of a challenge. Miso says that it worked with Chipotle’s culinary team in tailoring the technology, training Chippy to replicate the recipe using corn masa flour, water, and sunflower oil to cook the chips, season with salt, and finish with lime juice.

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“Unlike traditional robots that are designed to produce a perfect result every time, Chippy is explicitly programmed to recreate the culinary integrity of Chipotle’s chips with subtle variations in flavor in each chip. Another unique feature of Chippy is the ability to season chips with fresh lime juice and kosher salt,” Chipotle chief technology officer Curt Garner told VentureBeat via email.

Chipotle says that it’s testing Chippy — and crew and guest reactions to it and its chips — before deciding on a national rollout strategy.

“Chipotle’s culinary team is testing Chippy to determine if any modifications are required before Chippy is integrated into a restaurant,” Garner added. “The team is also working on the sizing to ensure Chippy can fit into some existing Chipotle kitchens … Chippy will be integrated into a Southern California restaurant later this year to test, listen and learn from employee and guest feedback before a larger rollout is determined.”

Expanding market

The Chipotle collaboration is a win for Miso, which recently inked a deal with White Castle to bring its Flippy 2 frying robot to 100 of the fast food chain’s locations. Miso claims that Flippy 2 — which integrates with a restaurant’s point-of-sales system and delivery apps — can handle about 60 frying baskets per hour and cook things like chicken tenders, tater tots, cheese sticks, corn dogs, popcorn shrimp, onion rings, and more.

Cameras, sensors, motors, and computer vision algorithms enable Miso’s robots to pick up ingredients from a cold storage hopper, alter portion sizes, and learn to prepare new items like Impossible Foods’ vegetarian Impossible Burger. Miso’s robots are designed to be installed under a standard kitchen hood or on the floor and take on tasks like scraping grills, draining excess fry oil, and skimming oil between frying batches, making them plug-and-play for many fast food restaurants.

In addition to White Castle, Miso has deployed robots in CaliBurger locations and sports arenas, including Dodger Stadium and Chase Field in Phoenix. The startup also has a partnership with Inspire Brands, the holding company behind Arby’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Baskin-Robbins, to test Flippy Wings, Miso’s chicken wing-frying product. Sports bar franchise Buffalo Wild Wings has also announced that it’s testing Flippy Wings in one of its R&D kitchens.

Recently, Miso began investigating other areas of kitchen automation, including a software-as-a-service platform aimed at improving restaurant operations. A deal with beverage dispenser manufacturer Lancer Worldwide saw Miso pledge to create a run of automated vending machines aimed at quick service restaurants.

In December 2021, Miso — which is valued at $500 million — closed a $35 million series D funding round that brought its total capital raised to $60 million. (The company opened a series E round in February 2022 with the goal of raising $40 million.) Miso has previously said that it plans to take its kitchen robots to markets outside of the U.S. in the future, including the U.K., Canada, and Australia.

Replacing workers

Miso has long claimed that its robots can boost productivity by working with humans as opposed to replacing them. That might be true when human workers — discouraged by low pay, job insecurity, and added pandemic-related health risks — are in short supply. But in the future, robots like Miso’s threaten to reduce workforces that, in many cases, are struggling to make ends meet.

A 2020 report from Aaron Allen & Associates predicts that 80% of restaurant jobs could eventually be taken over by robots. The coauthors expect that machines will replace as many as 57% of fast food and counter workers and 51% of servers as restaurants change their layouts to accommodate more takeout customers, a pandemic-era trend. In a possible harbinger, Chipotle opened a “digital kitchen” two years ago in Highland Falls, New York that lacks a dining room and is only open for pickup and delivery.

As of April 2021, the median pay for the roughly five million fast food workers in the U.S. was $11.63 per hour, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics data. In Denver, Colorado, where Chipotle is headquartered, MIT’s Living Wage calculator estimates the cost of living for a single person to be around $17.40. (The minimum wage in Denver increased to $15.87 on January 1, 2022.)

“Chipotle is always seeking innovative solutions to improve the employee experience and remove friction in restaurants,” Garner said. “We make our chips fresh in house all throughout the day, and the process is a monotonous, labor-intensive task that doesn’t excite the crew as much as other functions. Integrating AI to the chip station removes teams from this function, allowing them to focus on the culinary duties that drove them to join Chipotle.”

Staffing shortfalls have pushed wages higher during the pandemic. But restaurant executives are eager to cut these expenditures through, for example, automation, particularly as they lead to rises in menu prices. Starbucks alone plans to spend roughly $1 billion in fiscal 2021 and 2022 on improving benefits for its baristas, a price tag likely higher than what an army of robots would cost. (One of Miso’s robots costs around $20,000 to $30,000 outright or between $1,000 to $2,000 per month on a plan that includes updates and maintenance.)

“We’re definitely going to see more use of robots in soft processes such as food production. The challenge comes in working with natural products, which may not be uniformly sized or shaped. This is being addressed with improved AI, vision systems, and innovative gripper design,” Gartner research VP Bill Ray told VentureBeat via email. “Tortilla chips are, in food terms, relatively simple to prepare, so this is very much the first step on a long road which will, eventually, see all manner of foods prepared automatically. We’re still a long way from replacing the chef in the commercial kitchen, but the days of the kitchen porter may be numbered.”

One of Miso’s competitor, Momentum Machines, acknowledges its role in the coming displacement, urging those who lose their jobs in the fast food industry to become engineers and work to design — or service — more automated systems. But it isn’t that easy. Upward mobility eludes most in the industry — 90% of the fast food workforce is made up of front-line workers like line cooks and cashiers and less than 1% owns a franchise, the National Employment Law Project reports.

Some politicians have floated the idea of a “robot tax.” Others advocate for guarantees like universal basic income. Ready or not, though, the robots are coming for restaurant kitchens.

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