Published 18 August 2020
Food business are adapting to new ways of doing business as they operate during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some are choosing a unique way to operate safely — using robot technology.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced food businesses to adapt their business operations in order to keep staff and customers safe. Many food businesses have reopened after temporary closures, and are doing so while adhering to strict guidelines and restrictions. This situation has shone a light on the challenges that food businesses face in order to operate while still abiding by COVID-19 restrictions. Physical distancing measures are difficult to maintain and enforce in certain areas of a food business, particularly the kitchen. As a result, there appears to be a growing demand for robots and other technological gadgets in food businesses — all of which can keep operations flowing in a safe manner.
Robots that can cook are being viewed as a possible way of the future for food businesses. In the fall, US food chain White Castle will be testing a robot named “Flippy” which can cook french fries and other types of food. The robot will be tested at a northern Indiana location.
The robot is designed by Miso Robotics, and discussions between the robotics company and White Castle had been happening for about a year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic situation has now accelerated those talks and Flippy is set to roll out in the coming months.
While this is only one example of a food business incorporating robots into the operations, it illustrates how this technology can benefit food businesses in the time of COVID-19 and beyond.
As a condition of reopening, food businesses are being required to adhere to specific guidelines and restrictions mandated by their governments. These guidelines include maintaining physical distancing between individuals, which includes staff members where possible. This is difficult to achieve in the kitchen, where kitchen staff are working in tight quarters. Using a robot at a kitchen station can help to ensure there is adequate space between kitchen staff.
By using a robot in a kitchen, the employee that typically works that station can be freed up to conduct other tasks. This is particularly useful during this time period where food businesses are required to clean and sanitize the premises more frequently. Having more employees that can dedicate their time to this task helps food businesses meet their requirements for operation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a lot of fear and uncertainty when it comes to touching objects and surfaces. Food businesses are using different ways to ensure that their operations are as “touch-free” as possible, such as contact-free payments and digital menus. Using a robot in the kitchen can help to create a contact-free environment that will please customers.
There is no denying that food businesses are struggling due to the pandemic. There have been significant financial losses due to temporary shutdowns and other costs associated with reopening again. While a robot can be seen as costly at the onset, the benefit to using one could cut down labor costs in the long run. Robots can work 24/7 and do not require breaks (other than for maintenance).
There are concerns about whether robot technology will replace food worker jobs all together. Because technology does not need breaks, days off, sick days or pay raises, there is an incentive towards using robot technology in the kitchen rather than people. For an industry that is already facing job insecurity due to the pandemic, this is a big concern.
While robot technology can help with adhering to COVID-19 safety measures, it does come with its own set of unique health and safety risks. Robots will need to be cleaned and sanitized frequently as part of the cleaning and sanitizing schedule. A lack of cleaning them properly could lead to food contamination and incidents of food-borne illness. There is also the risk of physical contamination of food should a piece of the robot become dislodged and fall into the food it is preparing. Stringent maintenance protocols will need to be followed in order to ensure food is safe for consumption.
Some also argue that food preparation needs to have an element of humanity to it. There is the perspective that food purchase and consumption is a personal experience, and one that should involve humans. The use of robots takes away the connectivity experienced between humans, which is one thing that keeps customers coming back to a food business again and again. While robots can do many things in a quicker and more efficient way, there is one thing they cannot do — be human.