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Meet the robots coming to a restaurant near you

Meet Flippy, Sippy and Chippy, the latest technology going into tackling the food service’s long-running employment crisis

Maggie Shannon pictures |  Lee Powell video
Maggie Shannon pictures | Lee Powell video

At the end of July, Jack in the Box in Chula Vista, California, got a new employee. He stood there for two weeks while other workers circled him, switching between fryer and fryer, filling paper sleeves with tacos that the fast food brand sells every year for a hundred million.

And then, having learned the ropes, he got down to business, concentrating exclusively on the frying station, tossing baskets of stuffed curly french fries and stuffed jalapeños into oil pans, eyeing the eagle when they were perfectly golden. He never takes breaks, never runs away when his boss isn’t looking, and won’t report illness or lean on company health insurance. But that doesn’t mean it comes cheap. Flippy the Robot cost $50 million to develop, and Jack in the Box cost about $5,000 to install and $3,500 per month to rent.

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Restaurants have been messing with robots for years, popping up as early as 1983 when Two Panda Deli in Pasadena used robots to move Chinese food from the kitchen to customers. There were sushi-rolling robots, coffee-making robots, and mini waiters from “iTray” drones: often consumer-facing, a form of customer entertainment and “added value” to differentiate the brand.

But now — with restaurants facing protracted labor shortages and robotic technology both getting better and cheaper — restaurant brands are making new math. How long before the initial technology investment pays off? How long will it take to train human employees to work alongside robotic co-workers? And in the end, how many restaurant jobs will robots permanently run?

In the way that Miso Robotics CEO Mike Bell said, Flippy was initially a solution in search of a problem. The company has been about six years, five of which are entirely in research and development, trying to bring a product to market. Pasadena’s sprawling Robotics Lab warehouse is filled with sizzling robotics and 3D printers struggling to keep up with the demands of 120 engineers and programmers. Their initial question: In a country that consumes nearly 50 billion burgers every year, why not develop a robot that can flip them neatly at every fast food restaurant?

They took the idea to the White Castle. Burger brand executives said the idea sounded nice, but they had a more pressing need: Do you have anything for the fryer?

The frying base is hot and dangerous. Workplace accidents often happen. It’s also where the car gets jammed at night with people waiting for loaded potatoes and chicken rings.

So Miso let Philby keep his smiley name but redesigned it to start dipping his French fries. White Castle has purchased a Flippy installation at the Merrillville, Ind. , and then several other locations across the country, aiming to get 100 over the next few years. Jack in the Box execs flew to Pasadena for a demo.

Miso Robotics has continued to develop the coffee machine for Panera. Work has begun on Sippy, a beverage fulfillment robot that pours, seals and labels drink orders — which will also be employed later this year at Jack in the Box — as well as Chippy, which will soon fry and season fresh tortilla chips at Chipotle. The robots, with their articulated arms, multiple cameras and machine learning, excel at those mind-numbing tasks that restaurant workers have to repeat over and over again. They don’t sniff about working the cemetery shift.

“We realized that an automated solution would be a real solution for our clients, and it should really have a high ROI for clients. Which meant it had to take a significant amount of work off the table,” Bell said.

For now, they’ve shelved guacamole and ice cream scoop robots. They are trying to stay focused.

Jack in the Box mascot, Jack, is a type of primitive robot, similar to a 15th century game, a mechanical clown that will pop out of the box when you open a handle. They’ve ditched the clown in marketing efforts in recent years, as part of the company’s long-term strategy of getting rid of things in there to see what gets stuck. The company was early on the now ubiquitous two-way intercom system in fast food, and offered breakfast sandwiches and portable salads. And his menu has more abundance than Oscar Wilde might agree: These days it has upwards of 80 items on the menu, about 60 percent of which end up in the pan.

Philippe has stopped working.

But there will be no hordes of robots from the movie “I, a robot anytime soon. “Fry, Robot” will be slower: Of the 2,270 Jack in the Boxes, 93 percent of which are franchises, it’s the only Chula Vista store where Flippy is being hired to solve kinks, with Sippy following at the end of this year. The goal is to install Flippy at five to 10 other high-volume Jack in the Box locations in 2023.

If robots are cheaper and more efficient, experts wonder, will more than 3 million entry-level fast-food jobs be ceded entirely to robots in the future? Right now, the thorny problem is that there aren’t enough humans willing to do this work.

According to the National Restaurant Association, 65 percent of restaurant owners still say finding enough workers is a central problem. In The Great Resignation, would-be hospitality workers were lured back with the promise of luxury fitness club memberships and 401(k) plans. It’s an industry that has faced stark reckoning, even before the pandemic, about wages, worker safety, and career advancement.

For the country’s 200,000 fast-food restaurants, the customers are there but the workers aren’t. The owners have cut business hours, closed dining options and streamlined menus to accommodate the changes. Besides QR codes, ordering kiosks, and contactless payment, maybe bots are the answer to relieving the pain?

Back in the Miso Robotics lab, Flippy was in the corner repeatedly dropping the fryer basket into the empty oil pan a million times to test the engine failure. The hype drives engineers to the nut. But there are some tests that are difficult to do. How do you test the best way to get humans and robots to work side by side? How do you make sure that humans don’t resent robots, and don’t become paranoid about losing their jobs?

Meet your bot co-workers:

“This is an improvement, not a replacement,” said Ali Neamat, vice president of operations services for Jack, sitting in the Chula Vista dining room just before lunch. “Our frying person has been promoted and Flippi has become his assistant.”

At any given time, Jack in the Box has 25 human employees, with one person working a shift working the fry – even with Flippy, they still use a bag and box, and add lettuce and cheese. But this could change.

You can see it coming. Flippi started acting strangely, shivering and swaying. The worker at the frying station had witnessed this behavior before. Even Joe Garcia, a “botany support specialist” at Miso Robotics tasked with troubleshooting Jack in the Box, had seen it. Garcia, a mechanical engineering graduate from Loyola Marymount University who one day wants to work at NASA, spends his days swooning as Flippi occasionally loses his mind when faced with tacos. Back in Miso, there’s an entire Slack channel dedicated to why Flippy freaks out sometimes when he has to drop a row of tacos into his perforated metal taco tray. Engineers watch videos on reboot, and discuss them.

The human worker took out the wet row of missing tacos, tossing them in the trash while Flippi stood up, vague and uninterested in reviewing the performance.

Editing by Sandhya Somashekhar, Monique Woo, and Karly Domb Sadof.