Cooking up automation: 4 labor-saving tech solutions at the NRA Show

Atosa Catering Equipment’s prototype fry machine at the National Restaurant Association show on May 22, 2023.

The restaurant industry is grappling with a pressing need for an additional 500,000 workers by the end of this year, as highlighted by Michelle Korsmo, CEO of the National Restaurant Association (NRA). During her keynote speech at the NRA Show, Korsmo emphasized the significant labor shortage, stating that the market currently has approximately two job openings for every job seeker. This scarcity of labor has given workers increased bargaining power, leading to rising labor costs and challenges for restaurants to maintain full staffing levels and operating hours.

To overcome these hurdles, many restaurants are turning to innovative solutions such as back-of-house robotics and smart kitchen equipment. These technological advancements enable restaurants to meet customer expectations despite the labor shortage. Korsmo predicted that by 2030, this adoption of technology would become even more widespread, fundamentally reshaping the industry. She envisioned smaller facilities with automated kitchens, deviating from the conventional layout. Korsmo added, “Tech costs will be a standard line item in everyone’s P&L, and the average number of employees will decline.”

The NRA Show showcased a diverse range of technology providers driving the industry toward this future. These companies aim to save time and reduce labor requirements in various aspects of restaurant operations. Restaurant Dive interviewed representatives from several companies to delve into their innovative products, unique features, pricing, and potential labor-saving capabilities.

One noteworthy innovation is Atosa Catering Equipment’s Intelligent French Fry Robotic Solution, a robotic fryer arm. Allen Ogle, a technical support specialist at Atosa, highlighted the safety features of the arm, which uses a conductive rubber coating to detect obstacles in its path. The arm halts within a mere two centimeters of an object, ensuring the safety of workers. By eliminating the need for large safety glass cases, Atosa’s french fry robot offers increased agility and occupies less valuable kitchen space. The automated salting portion of the station is still under development, but once complete, the equipment is estimated to replace one worker at the fryer and another at the salt and packaging station. The anticipated cost of the station ranges between $80,000 and $90,000, capable of frying 30 pounds of fries in just 20 minutes.

Convotherm showcased their smart combi ovens, which possess the remarkable ability to identify the loaded product and determine the appropriate cooking time and temperature. Arndt Manter, a product manager for Convotherm, explained that the oven uses artificial intelligence and advanced sensing systems to cook various food items precisely. The oven’s “cookbook” feature allows users to upload item profiles, enabling the machine to cook according to the recipe without manual temperature adjustments. This innovation has proven successful in European supermarket chain REWE, reducing the time spent by store bakers and enhancing the freshness of baked goods, resulting in increased sales. Although pricing for the Convotherm smart oven in the North American market has not yet been determined, it promises to revolutionize cooking processes in commercial kitchens.

PathSpot presented an optical scanner capable of detecting harmful contaminants on employees’ hands, including q, listeria, norovirus, and salmonella. The scanner, positioned next to a handwashing station, utilizes visible light fluorescence spectroscopy to identify the presence of contaminants. Dutch Waanders, co-founder and chief technology officer of PathSpot, highlighted the system’s comprehensive capabilities, encompassing temperature monitoring, line checks, checklists, label printing, task management, and audit notes. By integrating existing sensors into their system through the internet of things, PathSpot ensures seamless synchronization and accessibility of data. While the labor savings may be minimal, the technology’s ability to prevent foodborne illnesses and protect brand reputation is invaluable to the restaurant industry.

Another remarkable innovation displayed at the NRA Show was the robotic grill manufactured by Aniai, a South Korean firm. This cutting-edge grill can cook eight patties, ranging from four to six ounces each, in just 90 seconds. Equipped with cameras, the grill monitors the color and temperature of the patties, ensuring optimal cooking results. The machine is self-cleaning, featuring a scraper that removes grease and residue between cooking sessions. Additionally, the proprietary artificial intelligence embedded in the grill can detect contaminants in protein, contributing to improved food safety. These features translate to labor savings equivalent to one employee. While the cost for one unit of the robotic grill is approximately $130,000, Aniai also offers a subscription service priced at $3,500 monthly.

As the restaurant industry faces the challenges posed by labor shortages, technology-driven solutions are emerging as essential tools to alleviate the burden. With the increasing adoption of robotics, smart kitchen equipment, and advanced software systems, the landscape of the industry is set to transform by 2030. The integration of these innovations is not only vital for streamlining operations but also for ensuring customer satisfaction and safety in an evolving industry.

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