Can robotics actually improve creativity in the kitchen?

Barney Wragg

Robots replacing human jobs has been typically a controversial issue within the workplace, however amidst the global pandemic, calls for a robotised kitchen are rising as restaurateurs and food service providers are recognising the health benefits of less contact between staff and customers.

To gain a greater perspective on this new way of thinking, Richard Alvin, Managing Editor speaks to Barney Wragg, CEO and co-founder of Karakuri to find out how chefs and the industry are hoping to merge robotics within their workspace.

Here’s a snippet from their chat, ensure you never miss an episode again by subscribing to the podcast.

Backed by Ocado, Firstminute Capital, Taylor Brothers and Hoxton Ventures, Karakuri has gone from a back of the envelope idea to a fully fledged robotics system that’s seeking to drive the hospitality industry forwards. How are Michelin chefs taking to the news of a potentially roboticised kitchen?

At first I was actually quite nervous thinking that they would be against the idea, however we’ve found the exact opposite to be true. Actually having an automated system in place can achieve all of the jobs that chefs don’t want to do, actually giving them more time to focus on the artisanal side of being creative.

One of your advisor’s is Heston Blumenthal, one of the most forward thinking chefs at the moment, what’s his involvement and how is he embracing the tech. Is he hoping to bring it into his own kitchens in due course?

Heston’s great to work with – he’s like a ball of creative energy that’s just waiting to go supernova at any moment. He’s always got a million idea of what’s going on. Famous for his scientific approach to cooking, he looks at things in a great amount of detail that means that everything has to be prepared scientifically with a massive degree of control otherwise some of his dishes just don’t work. When we talked to him he felt that it was a great tragedy that he was creating these great dishes but in the process, making his chefs become automatons. The sheer level of accuracy required meant that they had very little opportunity to express their own creative nature. He echoed what we had found above, saying: ‘if you can help me automate tasks that don’t give my staff the opportunity to be creative, you would allow them to be the artisans I want them to be, then that’s a fantastic result.’

We’ve seen that across the industry. Right at the beginning of Karakuri we sat down with Ruth Rogers from the River Café and I was concerned because they don’t even have a menu, they just make it up every day based on what they have access to and what they think will be the tastiest options. She mentioned that they had an issue with consistency – they might serve the same two dishes but they may contain different levels of ingredients as different chefs have different interpretations. Whereas there’s a standardisation within a restaurant offering that needs to work hand in glove with the artisanal aspect.

Given the social distancing currently in play, a robotic kitchen could be quite an important addition allowing restaurants to reopen faster and food to flow quicker. How do you see your devices working in a commercial kitchen?

It’s really early days, we’re all still learning what social distancing is going to mean within the hospitality industry and how we’re going to work. It’s a definite issue to be solved –  many restaurant kitchen spaces are small with people working literally cheek to jowl to get the max efficiency. Robotics can optimise human workflow so you can have lower density of people around but it’s also very hygenic – the food is separated from people, it’s very good for allergies, uniquely contained or dispensed with no one to contaminate it. However, we’re a long way off powering multiple kitchens at this point.

So the problem of the Travel Lodge buffet isn’t going to be solved anytime soon?

Sadly not, although we’ve been inundated with calls in the last six to eight weeks from everybody trying to work out how they can make hotel breakfasts through to staff canteens safe from a social distancing point of view. With our DK1 product, we are automating buffets and canteens and servicing – automating that pre order pack is extremely attractive in that space and I wish we could say: ‘ah yes covid turned up and all of our development could go a year faster than we expected’, but the reality is that things don’t happen quite like that.

Covid is a huge opportunity for us, but like anyone in the hospitality industry, we don’t know in a year’s time what the operating model of a school canteen or service restaurant is going to be. In the meantime we’re just trying to go as quickly as we can and provide as much data to people as possible.

Every day we progress and find out how we can help each other, it’s one of those times where everyone wants to see hospitality running again and trying to find creative solutions to doing that is a priority for everybody.

Is there a sweet spot to be found mixing humans with robots?

Yes definitely. To me the interesting sweet spot with this technology and the business case is how you best use both humans and robots together. Humans with all their strengths and weaknesses, their ability to deal with problems, with other people, to be creative and then merging that with machines with which it’s their ability to be reliable, deterministic and do the jobs that we don’t like doing. How do you marry those two together to get the best commercial result? Answering that, to me, is the exciting part about what we’re doing.

Is there a substantial time saving in addition to the actual labour saving?

The question for us is what does one machine replace and that depends on the menu of what it is we’re dispensing, but typically we see sights where they may have had two or three people working a full shift throughout the day, opening up, preparing, lunchtime, cleaning own and in peak times you may have seen 8-10 staff there. We’re working with people where their model is to have those full time staff throughout the day without needing the extra people at busy times.

That allows their business to hit a though-put that’s required and that through-put can be well north of 100 unique meals an hour. So nothing’s prepared, nothing’s pre assembled so people can be as specific as they want with their preferences and it can be done.

It’s that flexibility which is a huge incentive for a customer to use the machines or to frequent a restaurant that has them. And it’s that leveling of a staff profile in a difficult environment where most restaurants are trying to hire those few people for an extra couple of hours and finding it impossible to do so that makes the economics of our industry work. 

It’s interesting to hear this perspective – it’s actually all about helping humans become more focused on their creativity and run viable businesses?

Yes. Our business is driven by two economic factors within the hospitality industry. We can’t really do anything about the fixed costs of rent, insurances etc but the two major factors of operation are: input costs and staff. We can help manage both of those by managing what order patterns look like and understanding what the volume should be. It’s interesting when we talk to the big chains, their feedback is not that they necessarily want to reduce their costs by reducing head counts, it’s more about reducing churn.

We’ve got one chain that we work with where it’s it’s not unusual for them to be recruiting between five  and six times a year for every role that they have, the turnover is phenomenal which has a huge cost associated with that – recruiting, training, managing and putting people through those processes to get them there. It’s extremely time consuming and extremely costly.

It also has a negative impact on quality and the overall working environment so their brief to us was: we’ve done a survey, here’s all the jobs that people don’t like in the kitchen can you help us reduce those jobs because if you can take that away we can keep our headcount the same but our staff cost saving will be long term employees.

Hear the rest of Barney’s findings on the Business Matters podcast here.

A big thank you to Barney for chatting to our listeners and readers. We wish you all the best in pushing forwards with your work.

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