Meet Flippy, Sippy and Chippy, the newest technology on the scene to solve a protracted labor crisis in food service
Meet Flippy, Sippy and Chippy, the newest technology stepping in to address a protracted labor crunch in food service
In late July, a Jack in the Box in Chula Vista, Calif., landed a new employee. He stayed there for a few weeks while other workers swarmed around him, vying between flattop and deep fryer, stuffing paper sleeves with the tacos that the fast-food brand sells every year by the hundred million.
And then, having learned his stuff, he got to work, focusing solely on the frying station, tossing baskets of seasoned potato chips and stuffed jalapeños into vats of oil, glancing at them when they were perfectly browned. He doesn’t take breaks, he never ducks when the boss isn’t looking, he won’t say he’s sick or lean on the company’s health insurance. But that doesn’t mean it comes cheap. Flippy the Robot cost $50 million to develop and cost Jack in the Box about $5,000 to install and $3,500 a month to rent.
Restaurants have been playing with robotics for years, dating back to 1983 when Two Panda Deli in Pasadena used robots to bring Chinese food from the kitchen to customers. There have been sushi-rolling robots and coffee-making robots and small “iTray” drone waiters: often these are consumer-facing, a form of customer entertainment and “added value” to differentiate a brand.
But now — with restaurants facing prolonged labor shortages and robotic technology becoming better and cheaper — restaurant brands are doing new math. How long until an initial investment in technology pays off? How long will it take to train human employees to work alongside robot coworkers? And, ultimately, how many restaurant jobs will be permanently run by robots?
As Miso Robotics chief executive Mike Bell puts it, Flippy was initially a solution in search of a problem. The company has been around for about six years, five entirely in research and development, trying to bring a product to market. The robotics lab’s sprawling warehouse in Pasadena is filled with robotic parts and 3D printers that strive to meet the demands of 120 engineers and programmers. Your initial question: In a nation that consumes nearly 50 billion hamburgers a year, why not develop a robot that can accurately flip them in every fast-food restaurant?
They took the idea to Castelo Branco. Burger brand executives said the idea sounded good, but they had a more urgent need: Do you have anything for the fryer?
The fryer station is hot and dangerous. It is often where work accidents occur. It’s also where the drive-through gets crowded at night with people waiting for their loaded fries and chicken rings.
So Miso let Flippy keep his fancy name, but redesigned it to start dipping chips. White Castle bought it, installing Flippy in Merrillville, Indiana, and then several others around the country, with a goal of having 100 in the next few years. Jack in the Box executives went to Pasadena for a demo.
Miso Robotics continued, developing a coffee prediction machine for Panera. Began work 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, who will soon be frying and seasoning fresh tortillas. at Chipotle. The robots, with their articulated arms, multiple cameras and machine learning, excel at these mind-numbing tasks that restaurant workers have to repeat over and over again. And they are not disdainful of working the night shift.
“We realized that for a robotic solution to be a real solution for our customers, it needed to have a very high return on investment for the customer. Which meant I had to take a significant amount of work off the table,” Bell said.
For now, they’ve shelved guacamole robots and ice cream scoop robots. They are trying to stay focused.
Jack in the Box’s mascot, Jack, is a kind of proto-robot, modeled on a toy from the 1500s, a mechanical clown that popped out of a box when you turned a crank. They’ve ditched the clown in marketing efforts in recent years, part of the company’s longstanding strategy of throwing things out there to see what works. The company went early to the now-ubiquitous two-way intercom system in fast food, and introduced portable breakfast sandwiches and salads. And his menu has more exuberance than Oscar Wilde would approve of: he now has more than 80 menu items, about 60% of which end up in the deep fryer.
Flippy has his work cut out for him.
But there won’t be the legions of robots from the “I, Robot” movie anytime soon. “Fry, Robot” will be slower: of the 2,270 Jack in the Boxes, 93% of which are franchises, it’s just this Chula Vista store where Flippy is being employed to sort out the issues, with Sippy following later this year. The goal is to have Flippy installed in another five to 10 high-volume Jack in the Box locations by 2023.
If robots are cheaper and more efficient, experts wonder, will the more than 3 million entry-level fast-food jobs be ceded entirely to robots in the future? For now, the thorny problem is that there just aren’t enough humans who want to do the work.
According to the National Restaurant Association, 65% of restaurant owners still say finding enough workers is a core issue. In the Great Layoff, future hospitality employees were being lured back with the promise of high-end gym memberships and 401(k) plans. It’s an industry that faced a reckoning, even before the pandemic, over pay, worker safety and career progression.
For the country’s nearly 200,000 fast-food restaurants, customers are there but workers are not. Owners have reduced hours of operation, closed dining options and simplified menus to accommodate changes. Along with QR codes, kiosk ordering and contactless payment, perhaps robots are the balm to ease the pain?
Back in the Miso Robotics lab, there’s a Flippy in the corner repeatedly throwing a fryer basket into an empty oil tank a million times to test the armor’s failure. The noise drives engineers crazy. But there are some tests that are more difficult to do. How do you test the best way to have humans and robots work side by side? How do you ensure that humans don’t resent robots, don’t get paranoid about losing their jobs?
Meet the robot’s co-workers:
“This is an improvement, not a replacement,” said Ali Nemat, Jack’s vice president of operations services, sitting in the Chula Vista dining room just before lunch. “Our fried person is being promoted and Flippy is his assistant.”
At any given time, a Jack in the Box restaurant has 25 human employees, with one person on the frying shift – even with Flippy, they still bag and pack, add lettuce and cheese. But that could change.
You could see it coming. Flippy started acting strange, pushing and piggybacking. The fingerling station worker had witnessed this behavior before. Even Joe Garcia, the Miso Robotics “robot support specialist” assigned to troubleshoot Jack in the Box, had seen it. Garcia, a mechanical engineering graduate from Loyola Marymount University who wants to work for NASA one day, is spending his days diving when Flippy occasionally freaks out when he finds bats. Back in Miso, there’s an entire channel on Slack dedicated to why Flippy freaks out sometimes when he has to put a row of tacos in the special metal perforated taco tray. Engineers watch videotapes on replay, argue.
The human worker fished out the sodden row of stray clubs, tossing them in the trash while Flippy stood, inscrutable and unconcerned with a performance review.
Edited by Sandhya Somashekhar, Monique Woo and Karly Domb Sadof.