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Top 5 FoodTech Insights from the Experts

By Team InOrbit

Recently the InOrbit team was excited to host another in our series of fascinating webinars; this time on the state of automation in foodservice and the implications of robotics for the FoodTech space at large. As with the previous InOrbit webinars, CEO Florian Pestoni hosted a discussion with some great guest speakers bringing their insights and expertise to bear.

If you didn’t have a chance to join us the webinar is now available for free on-demand. Although you might first want to read on and explore some of our key takeaways from the discussion.

Clayton Wood, the CEO of Picnic joined us, to share his wealth of knowledge around the practical application of integrating advanced kitchen technologies at restaurants. As the creators of the impressive Picinic Pizza Station Clayton and his team have invaluable insight into the process and pain points seen when man meets machine over a slice of pizza.

Gennadiy Goldenshteyn also joined to share his broad perspective as an investor in various FoodTech ventures. Gennadiy is the Founder and Managing Director of Dinemic Ventures, a product development incubator for technology-driven innovation in foodservice and hospitality industries with a particular focus on automation. Gennadiy also serves as Principal at First Principles LLC, a consulting firm that helps clients break down seemingly complex strategic and operations problems to their foundational basics. 

Our guests know the FoodTech space extremely well and shared some insights. Here are our Top 5 takeaways from the webinar.


1 - There is a massive opportunity in foodservice automation right now

FoodTech aside, foodservice in and of itself is a broad category, but when focusing on the restaurant market, it’s clear that there are major opportunities for robotic solutions to some of the very present problems. Gennadiy broke down the opportunities around the front-of-house (customer facing / dining areas) vs. back-of-house (kitchens), explaining how much of the current investment into new technologies has been focused on front-of-house tech including point-of-sale, and loyalty programs, alongside digital and physical delivery or pick-up programs. The real opportunity however is emerging for back-of-house technology applications. Customer facing technologies have been embraced, creating a high expectation of service and putting new pressure on the back-of-house to keep up. Lots of money, talent, and interest are now being invested in back-of-house tech, but it's still a tough industry to break into, and very nascent.


2 - Complete jobs need to be considered, not just a single task

Contextualizing the Picnic approach Clayton shared that purpose-built automation like they offer with the Pizza Station, is meant to work alongside human workers. It’s collaborative, and maybe more importantly does a series of tasks, executing a complete job. If the Pizza Station just did one task like putting sauce on the dough, that's wouldn’t reduce the need for labor, and it wouldn’t make a pizzeria that much more productive. Frankly, handling a single task wouldn’t even speed things up very much. To make a real impact you need to measurably reduce the workload and the need for labor. That can only happen when a complete end-to-end job is considered. In Clayton’s words “We (Picnic) want to help foodservice operators be more productive and efficient.

In fact, improving just one operation in the process can lead to more disruption than you’d think. Effective integration of technology is important, and kitchens are a hectic place. While they bear little resemblance to a factory, thats what the predominant technological approach has been trying to do when one machine can only accomplish one task. There's still a lot of work to be done.


3 - Robotics manufacturers must meet the operator on their own terms / adaptability is key

Clayton explained how the Picnic Pizza Station assembles a pizza about as fast as a single skilled operator could make it, but by the time it's made, several more are already in progress. That’s the efficiency they provide. And they do it without compromising the pizza quality. As Clayton explained, great pizza is rooted in great dough, and Picnic doesn’t handle dough. Picnic also doesn’t dictate or compromise how a pizza is cooked and prepared, because they don't cook pizza. Neither do  they don’t constrain restaurants with only specific types of ingredients. Pizzerias live and die on their unique recipes, so Picnic is designed to use any ingredients. They are adaptable, enabling restaurants to truly make their own pizza.

Gennadiy added to this context, noting that in the US alone there are some 700K existing restaurants and if you want to sell robotics to them in the thousands or tens of thousands, you have to consider how you integrate into their existing kitchen. You can’t start from scratch redesigning a whole new kitchen for every restaurant. And remember it's not a nice environment for robots or cobots; it's dirty, and there are people everywhere  - that’s the real challenge. 

What Gennadiy sees is that machines that try to replicate human actions and human processes in an existing ‘dumb’ appliance don’t work in the long run, the real potential is in machines that adapt to the space, and the humans they work with. Picnic adapts to the restaurant's need for ownership over their recipes, and automation that can adapt physically to for example, use the verticality of a kitchen, building higher than a human could work but still within a standard footprint will see success. That is so long as they can measurably improve and support the human-led kitchen processes.


4 - it's not enough to design smart automation, customers have to accept it

Showing the clear value of automation to restaurant owners is key. Restaurateurs are a pragmatic bunch;  if they don't see value in a product quickly they will reject it. They don’t have time or money to invest and then stick around waiting for automation to develop to fit their needs. If automation doesn’t show returns they won’t invest in it. What works are solutions that show clear value on cost of food, cost of labor, and the stability to optimize infrastructure. More things need to get done in the same amount of space. 

Automation has to connect to the restaurant owner’s self-interests. 

For them, there’s an immediate cost pressure around labor, food, and infrastructure - especially labor. Moving far beyond the current great resignation, a restaurant kitchen is a world of immigrants and college kids. Largely though, these groups do not want to work restaurant jobs anymore. The current state sees most restaurants operating at only 65% of optimal staffing. So automation must critically save for labor, which means clear use cases and end-to-end solutions.


5 - Orchestration is the next frontier

Clayton shared two axioms: you don’t automate a bad process, and you can’t just chop off one piece of automation from the middle of a process and expect the whole system to get better.  Foodservice automation needs to fit into that larger sequence of events in a restaurant. Considering how a back-of-house robot might integrate with a food serving robot in front-of-house, or a delivery robot, or an autonomous food locker is critical moving forward. How does a hand-off from one system to another actually take place? Especially when the robots solving these problems are likely made by different companies. Streamlined orchestration will be critical as automation in foodservice develops.

Florian noted how at InOrbit we increasingly see point solutions for automation in warehouse, distribution centers and logistics fields. These may result in productivity improvements, but the overall throughput is not impacted. Just like in the warehouse context, orchestration is important as the automated foodservice sector grows. Getting varied solutions to work together is difficult, but thats what our tools are designed to do. A kitchen simply isn’t a factory environment, and flexibility is required. Conveyor belts may work at a massive scale but lack true flexibility, and adaptability. They lack the potential to support true heterogeneous orchestration. The next generation of smart robots being developed for kitchens and beyond are being built with an understanding that this is a priority.


We hope you enjoyed exploring this developing field of automation and will consider joining InOrbit for our next webinar, to be announced very soon. 

Don’t forget, the full conversation with Florian, Clayton, and Gennadiy can be viewed right now for free on-demand. We suggest you grab a slice of pizza and pull up a chair to watch the video now.