Cooking Automation: 4 Labor-Saving Technology Solutions at the NRA Show (2023)

CHICAGO -- The restaurant industry needs 500,000 more workers by the end of the year to address chronic labor shortages, National Restaurant Association CEO Michelle Korsmo said during the keynote event at the NRA Show on Sunday. In other words, the market has about two job openings for every worker looking for a job, Korsmo said.

This employment gap has given workers more bargaining power, increased labor costs and made it difficult for restaurants to remain fully staffed and open for full hours. For many restaurants, in-house robotics and smart kitchen equipment are key to meeting diner expectations despite low staffing. Such technology adoption could become so widespread, Korsmo said, that it will reshape the industry by 2030.

“[In 2030] the facilities will be smaller, with more automated kitchens and different from the typical design. Technology costs will be a standard item in everyone's profit and loss, and the average number of employees will decrease,” predicted Korsmo.

The NRA Show featured a wide variety of technology providers pushing the industry into that future, saving a few minutes here, an entire job there. The technology on display ranged from robotic arms capable of operating a hatchery station to a safety software system that can detect contaminants on an employee's hands. Restaurant Dive interviewed representatives from various companies about their innovative products, what sets them apart from the competition, their price points and their labor-saving potential.

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Robot roasting stations

Allen Ogle stood directly in the path of the robotic fryer arm with his back to the frying baskets. The machine, carrying a basket of French fries fresh from the fryer, moved along its predetermined path. The arm hit Ogle, but it was only a very light touch. Ogle, a technical support specialist at Atosa Catering Equipment, smiled. Maury Rams, Atosa's vice president of international sales, explainedrobotic arm- called the Intelligent Robotic French Fry Solution - is covered in conductive rubber that detects when an object is in its path.

The arm prevents an inch from touching anything, so it shouldn't hurt or knock a worker over, Ogle said. When the arm, which was moving at low speed, hit Ogle, it stopped immediately. This is one of the features designed to make Atosa's French Fry Robot more attractive to operators. The auto-stop feature means the boom is safe for workers to move around, eliminating the need for large safety glass boxes like those found around somecompeting robotic arms.

Without a safety bag, the arm is flexible and takes up a smaller part of valuable kitchen space. The roaster arm can also use a valveless cap or fit under most standard valve caps, Ogle said, thereby reducing retrofit and installation costs.

Atosa is still working on automating the salting part of the station, although Ogle said it would be ready by the end of the year. With the automated salting station, Ogle estimated that the team could replace one worker at the fryer and another at the salting and packaging station.

Cost:The station, when complete, will cost between $80,000 and $90,000, according to Ogle, and will be able to fry 30 pounds of fries in 20 minutes, Rams said.

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smart combi ovens

Convotherm's oven knows what you put in it, said Arndt Manter, product manager for the German company. Manter and his colleague Hannes Wild filled the oven with trays covered with mock meatballs and schnitzel.

The oven uses a camera to identify what product and how much is being put in, meaning it can estimate how long and at what temperature it needs to run to cook the product. Warns staff when they have filled it with too much product for preset temperatures. As Wild stuffed the schnitzel, the oven displayed an alarm on the screen warning that freshness cannot be guaranteed if production is proceeding too quickly.

Heconvotherm ovenit uses artificial intelligence developed by PreciTaste and a camera, height sensors and heating and cooling systems to cook everything from steamed broccoli to steak, Manter said.

"He understands what kind of food you're putting in and what level [of the oven] you're putting it on. And then take action and go into the cookbook and draw the right profile," Manter said. "When you close the door, the cooking begins .” Users can upload item profiles to the cookbook, and once in, the machine can cook according to the recipe without humans needing to adjust the temperature or time, Wild said.

The system is already in use at European supermarket chain REWE, where Manter said it saves in-store bakers around an hour out of every eight-hour shift and has the added benefit of allowing REWE to run its ovens even when there is a trained baker . Not available. These features have enabled REWE to improve the freshness of its baked goods and increase baked goods sales by at least 25%, according to Manter.

Cost:The Convotherm smart oven is new to the North American market, so the company has not yet set prices for American buyers.

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Security and hygiene scanning software

PathSpot has developed an optical scanner that can detect host material for E-Coli, Listeria, Norovirus and Salmonella, which are typically transmitted through feces. The scanner, placed next to a hand-washing station, can see how effectively an employee has washed their hands, Dutch Waanders PathSpot's CTO said.

"Visible light fluorescence spectroscopy is the technical term, but essentially the way light is reflected from pollutants is unique," Waanders said. "We can use a unique LED system, cameras and filters, and a machine learning algorithm to determine whether such contamination is present."

The system color codes employee results. Green means a contamination was not detected, yellow means a contamination was present but the employee washed their hands again and passed another scan, and red indicates a failure without corrective action. But PathSpot's technology goes beyond handwashing, as the scanner acts as a hub for an integrated security software system.

“That includes temperature monitoring, line checks, opening and closing checklists, label printing, task management, audit notes, all of the above,” Waanders said. The company has worked with a number of hardware partners to integrate existing sensors into its system through the Internet of Things.

"We want to make sure that all the devices we have on premises sync with each other and sync with our cloud. So all the data is available in the same places," Waanders said. KB Bateman, who handles communications for the company, calculated that he could save a restaurant about 20 minutes a day by gathering all the safety screening information.While the labor savings are minimal, the savings in preventing foodborne illness and associated fire damage are intangible, Bateman said.

Cost:Bateman said the company's price is low because Pathspot is aware of thin margins at most restaurants, but declined to share specific numbers.

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Luis Astacio, a marketing representative for Aniai, a South Korean company that makes a robotic grill, said his company's robotic grill can cook eight burgers, each between 4 and 6 ounces, in about 90 seconds.

To achieve these cooking times, a worker places the steaks on the cooking surface, which the machine then raises to a second heating element, which cooks the top of the steak simultaneously, similar to a clam grill. But this grill uses cameras to monitor the color and temperature of the burgers, meaning the machine knows when the burgers are done, Astacio said.

It's also self-cleaning with a scraper that removes grease and residue between cooking sessions. Astacio said the proprietary AI can use the machine's cameras to detect some contaminants in proteins, meaning it could also improve food safety.

These features, Astacio estimated, save labor roughly equivalent to one employee.

"In terms of dollars and cents, when you think long-term in terms of our [jobs] crisis, going after automation makes sense right now," Astacio said.

Cost:The price is about $130,000 per device, but the company also offers a subscription service for $3,500 per month.

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