Robots could be making your next desk lunch

Could a robot making salads in a suburb of Chicago be the first step in a fast food singularity that replaces all human workers? 

Probably not, but it does mean your next salad might be made by a robot.

Driving the news: The salad start-up Sweetgreen is all in on automation after opening its “Infinite Kitchen” concept earlier this year, a futuristic fast-casual lunch spot where robots and self-serve kiosks handle everything from assembling salads to taking orders. 

  • Per The Wall Street Journalhumans are still on hand for tasks like greeting guests and adding “finishing touches” to meals, like perfecting a final scoop of guacamole. 

Catch up: Fast food joints have been exploring robotics to improve efficiency and even replace some staff. In terms of the sheer number of robots, Chipotle leads the pack: Its bot line-up includes a salad bot, an ingredient prep bot, and “Chippy,” which makes tortilla chips.  

  • Starbucks has been toying with the idea of fully robotic baristas as far back as 2018, part of a broader effort worth billions to shave time from the drink-making process.
  • Wendy’s has spent this year testing chatbots that take orders and having robots deliver take-out through underground tunnels to customers waiting in the parking lot.
  • White Castle bought 100 automatic robot arms that flip fries (and are appropriately named Flippy) from Miso Robotics, which also makes Chippy (Chipotle’s chip-maker) and Sippy (used at Jack in the Box to pours and package beverage orders).

Why it matters: Robots have yet to make it out of the test phase at most restaurants, so Sweetgreen’s confidence about robotics playing a big role in its 221 restaurants could signal a viable path forward to them coming to an eatery near you over the coming years. 

  • Rising labour costs mean fast food workers could get more expensive, and robots could also provide a cost-effective way to address labour shortages. 

Yes, but: Robotics are hard to scale, be it due to concerns about quality or return on the hefty investment. That’s why some innovations, like the automated drive-thru process at a McDonald’s in Texas, have not expanded despite causing a stir on TikTok a year ago.—JK