The Robots Are Coming!

by Paul Schlossberg
Posted On: 12/7/2018

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  Paul Schlossberg
The headline is true. The robots really are coming and their destination involves our industry.  

Perhaps you recall similar warnings. The first is from our history books¸ “The British are coming!” dating back to 1775. Another is from a 1966 movie with a political comedy theme – “The Russians are coming the Russians are coming.”    

The robots are already at work making and serving food, snacks and beverages. Maybe you have purchased food or beverage from a robot. If you have yet to do so, the odds are that you will do it soon.  

In our industry, there have been robotic vending machines going back decades. One of my first consulting projects, in 1994, was for Taco Bell. We were tasked with identifying and evaluating the path to market for Taco Bell to deploy branded Hot Choice Diner vending machines. The project scope was to identify the resources required for success and how Taco Bell would resolve the challenges of entering a new channel. Ultimately, they made the decision not to proceed.

Do you recall the automated French fry vending machines? How about the numerous automated pizza machines? What about the hot dog vending machines? Did you try the burrito making machine? These, and others, operated with robotic processes. There are too many to mention here if we simply look back in time.

So let’s look at more recent developments and what the future possibilities could be. The robots are coming! Many of these new robotic innovations are highly relevant for the locations we serve.

Our business is immediate consumption (IC) foods, snacks and beverages. As an industry, we face tough competition. That includes fast food restaurants, convenience stores and so many other alternatives. In each and every product category, we must find new and better ways to compete. There are sophisticated ordering kiosks in fast food restaurants and convenience stores.

The magic of the robot is something you must take into account when considering whether (or not) to deploy robotic equipment. There are robots deployed at some of our locations. Maybe “it” is retrieving a beverage or snack from a shelf in a vending machine.

What’s the magic? People are engaged and their eyes lock in on the robot as it completes its programmed task. The more visible the robot, the more hypnotic its actions can be. For some reason, too many of the robots in newer systems are hidden behind closed doors.  

Let’s examine some of the existing and newly emerging robotic foodservice systems. Which ones appear to have potential for the locations we serve? While we cannot dig into all of the robotic equipment players, let’s separate the list into 10 different product categories.

Cold Beverages

This category is obviously a big part of our business. We generally sell bottles and cans. Carbonated soft drinks have been our big dollar source for decades. It’s changing and that’s not just in our business. You’re well aware of bottled water sales and the virtual explosion of brands, flavors and healthier-focus packaged drinks.

But the real driver of cold drink innovation revolves around customization. There are two important developments you should be very familiar with by now. The Coca-Cola Freestyle has 100-plus choices leading to an almost endless set of customizable drinks. And there is the Pepsi Spire which serves “more than 1,000 personalized beverage variations.”    

Now with vending capability available, where does it make sense for you to provide customizable cold drinks at locations you serve? The Freestyle has added the capability to tie in with micro market payment processing. These developments put our industry in a much better position to compete with c-stores and fast food restaurants for customized cold drinks.

Hot Beverages

Single cup brewing has been a huge success for our industry. But again customization is an opportunity we must address. We described the Briggo Coffee Haus in a Vending Times blog on February 8, 2018. The posting was headlined, “Vended Barista-Quality Coffee: Really? Yes, Really!” In simple terms it is a barista in (big) box.

Most recently, Briggo opened at Austin Bergstrom International Airport in July 2018. The press release noted that “This is the first app-based, robotic, 24/7 specialty coffee system installed in an airport in the world.”

There is more. An article in Fast Company, dated January 20, 2017, was titled, “At San Francisco’s New Cafe X, A Robot Makes Your Coffee Just The Way You Like It.” The article goes on: “…the small shop inside San Francisco’s Metreon shopping center allows customers to place orders via smartphone or an iPad kiosk. The orders are prepared and delivered by a robo-barista.”

The big issue for our hot beverage business is evolving and adapting from what we sell today. How will we deal with our sunk costs? That includes everything from batch-brewers to single cup systems. What must we do to transition our hot drinks business to a customizable service model?

Of course there will be a cost. It will be a significant investment decision. That assessment must be weighed against the opportunity to capture truly incremental transactions. Imagine what happens if people at your locations can skip the coffee shop because you’re now offering barista quality hot drinks. We’ll end that discussion here because the go or no-go factors are much more complex than we can deal with in this limited space.

Breakfast Foods

How about selling fresh-made oatmeal? (Some of you might recall that’s been tried). What about “real” pancakes and waffles? Right now everyone is thinking “impossible.” It is impossible because no one has figured out how to do it – YET! Breakfast all day is a big deal in fast food and at many other restaurants. We already sell breakfast foods all day, every day. What if we could upgrade our breakfast menu?

Snacks

We could not find much which resonated as new and exciting. Feel free to suggest ideas if you’ve seen something we might have not uncovered to date.

Salads

Sally the Salad Robot from Chowbotics will customize a salad for you in less than a minute. Salads are a category which has been difficult for our vending sites to deliver. Which of your high traffic locations might be candidates for Sally?

Hot Food

Let’s look beyond vending and micro markets for a moment. We don’t have kitchens or skilled chefs at our locations. Here are two interesting kitchen innovations to consider.  

Eatsa was introduced as an automated restaurant. The company has pulled back to two locations in San Francisco, after expanding to a total of six stores. There are cubby-hole bins which you access when your order is ready. They announced that their technology will be positioned and sold as an “end-to-end platform in other restaurants.”  

If you’re in the Boston area, you might be aware of Spyce. The restaurant was founded by MIT graduates and includes acclaimed chef Daniel Boulud as an advisor. It features a robotic kitchen and serves healthy fast food at affordable pricing. Meals are prepared by the robots in two minutes. The kitchen is designed to be self-cleaning.

Their first location is a prototype. Having dined at two of Daniel Boulud’s restaurants (in New York City), it would be fascinating to see what his influence would be on the food from a robotic kitchen.

Sandwiches (Especially Burgers)

Hamburgers are all the rage in the Austin TX area where we live. Would you like to sell fresh-made burgers? Meet these burger-making robots. Maybe you’ll employ one of them in the future.  

Creator, in San Francisco, sells a $6 burger. It’s all robotic cooking and assembly.  The company was formerly known as Momentum Machines. The restaurant’s co-founder, Alex Vardakostas, started on his first prototype in 2009.

Flippy, from Miso Robotics, was introduced as “the world’s first autonomous robotic kitchen assistant” in 2017. It is a high-tech burger flipper with a spatula-tipped arm. Flippy was quickly pulled from service. Apparently the (human) kitchen staff could not keep pace with the cooking speed and output Flippy delivered.

Desserts

Here is another category where we could not any automated vending equipment. If you spot something new, please share it with me. When it is released in a future article or blog, the first source will get full attribution and a thank you.

Ice Cream and Soft Serve

It’s dessert. But it could be a great snack alternative for the afternoon break.

Icetro, from South Korea, claims the distinction of being first to market with an ice cream vending machine.

Reis & Irvy’s Froyo Robot frozen yogurt vending machines will serve frozen yogurt, gelato, ice cream and sorbet.

Other Retail Categories

The subject of automated convenience stores (ACS) has been addressed recently in two of my Vending Times blogs. One was posted on June 1, 2018: “Has Automated Retailing’s Time Finally Arrived In The US?.” The other described two active ACS locations, in a posting dated August 9, 2018, and is titled “Memphis.” As noted in both blogs, my perspective continues to be very positive for the future of automated stores.

Auchan, the huge French retail company, is launching several hundred Auchan Minute Stores in China. The stores are small, about 190 square feet in size. Each location is unstaffed with about 500 selections. Shoppers enter using their smartphones. Once they check in personalized shopping offers can be suggested. It’s essentially a closed micro market serving one shopper at a time.

Our industry must expand beyond our traditional IC foods, snacks and beverages on our menus. ACS units offer a new venue and many new categories we could offer to the people who work at the sites we serve. My experience includes ACS units at colleges, hospitals, suburban bus and train stations and more.

ACS units must be deployed using sophisticated site analysis and planning. Having spent the last 20 years learning and refining my ACS skill set, we cannot really go much deeper on this subject now (unless you have a few hours to spare).    

Some Things To Consider About Robotics

We have read articles and seen or heard news reports that tell us “The robots are coming to take our jobs.” There have also been countless books and movies about how humans and robots will interact in the workplace. Some of the messages are bright and hopeful. Others present deep and troubling consequences for the future.

We’re well-aware that robots are working in manufacturing. You’ll find robots in other fields where you might expect people to be doing the work. Perhaps you’ve read or seen news reports about robots eventually taking on white-collar jobs. There are lawyer-bots. Have you heard about sushi made by robots?

If all of the work in the future is performed by robots, will there be any people at work to buy what we sell? Maybe our new business model will involve providing repair service and maintenance for robotic manufacturing equipment. Will we be selling spare parts for robots?  

We need to focus on our industry and our business today. Let’s move away from history and science fiction. You need to be actively looking at the current day implications of robots and robotics for the locations our industry is serving.

One of my favorite quotes highlights the difference between creativity and innovation. “Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.” The source is Theodore Levitt a professor from the Harvard Business School.

We can think about lots of clever new ideas to improve what we sell and how we sell it. Hopefully this article will stimulate you to do some new things. That means paying attention to robotics and the new robotic systems being introduced in our industry.

Approach these new systems with caution and careful planning. But do not be afraid to experiment. Testing at one or two locations could be a very positive learning experience. Maybe you can get a beta-test “deal” if you’re willing to share your data and insights with the equipment sellers.  

If we are going to sell more stuff, it’s time take a serious look at robotic innovations.




» Paul Schlossberg is president of D/FW Consulting, working with clients to merchandise and market products in impulse-intense selling environments, such as vending, onsite foodservice and convenience stores. Based in the Austin, TX, area, he can be reached at Paul@DFWConsulting.net or (972) 877-2972 or www.DFWConsulting.net.