We’ve known it was coming for some time and today it’s finally here. Flippy the burger-flipping robot started his first shift today at Caliburger in California. From KTLA 5:
Flippy is a brand new, burger flipping robot now cooking at a chain called CaliBurger, which serves up California style burgers and fries.
“The key to success in the restaurant industry is consistency. So anytime you go to a CaliBurger anywhere you know that the patty will be cooked exactly the same,” said John Miller, CEO of Cali Group, the company that runs the chain…
In addition to consistency and safety, CaliBurger says the robot can cut down on costs.
“It’s not a fun job – it’s hot, it’s greasy, it’s dirty,” said Miller about the grill cook position…
“This technology is not about replacing jobs – we see Flippy as that third hand,” said [Miso Robotics co-founder David] Zito.
The owners of the restaurant and the robotics team seem to be doing a little PR dance here. On the one hand, they are touting how this can cut costs by reducing high-turnover in an unskilled job. On the other hand, they seem hesitant to admit the result of this will be fewer jobs for humans. The latter conclusion may be unpopular but it also seems inevitable.
In fact, both Jazz and I have been writing about this coming trend for a couple years now. Fast food restaurants, facing pressure from increasing minimum wages, have been moving toward more automation, both at the counter and behind the scenes in the kitchen. Back in 2016, Carl’s Jr. CEO Andy Puzder told Business Insider he could envision a fully automated restaurant in the future. A former McDonald’s CEO also warned in 2016 that skilled robotics would soon be cheap enough to replace human workers.
In the midst of the union-led Fight for $15 last year, Wendy’s announced it was starting a pilot program to test out automated ordering kiosks. Subway announced it would also introduce self-order kiosks in some stores just a few months later. Shake Shack took it a step further, announcing last October that it was testing a kiosk-only location in New York.
Flippy seems pretty sophisticated. He not only flips the burgers using two different spatulas (one for raw meat and one for cooked), he also scrapes the grill clean after each set of burgers are done. The robot senses the temperature of the burgers to make sure the cooking is consistent every time. One thing it doesn’t do yet is lay out the meat or place cheese on the burgers. He also doesn’t salt the raw meat though Flippy’s human co-worker says that is coming. This clip shot by KTLA 5’s Rich DeMuro gives you a good sense of how this all works. Honestly, once you see it in action, it seems inevitable. Some of the big chains may be holding off to let someone else take the PR hit from going first, but in a couple years I bet all of the chains are testing something similar.