The new faces of work? Meet the robots at the National Restaurant Association Show


CHICAGO — If you’ve ever watched the Jetsons, you remember Rosie the Robot Maid. She is cooking. She cleaned up. And it existed in a time far, far away, when cars flew and children used jet-packs to get to school.

Walking the aisles of the National Restaurant Show, it looks like the future is here. There’s Adam, your friendly robot barista, and the bubbly-voiced Blue Robot, who wanders around the lounge offering you PepsiCo products.

The growth of robotics since the last NRA show is happening against the backdrop of a tight labor market – and also partly because of it. Takuro Iwamoto, a sales representative for Autec, said demand for its sushi-making robot has skyrocketed since 2020, now resulting in a six-month waiting list for the product.

“After the pandemic, there is a new world right now”, Ajay Sunkara, Chairman and CEO of Nala Robotics, said. “Let’s talk about hygiene. Let’s talk about the labor shortage. Let’s talk about the staff who are not showing up at all due to health issues at the moment. The best part of [robots] is consistency. You don’t have to do any training. He always does the same thing.

Nala Robotics was one of the many robots present at the show. Check out some of the others that have drawn crowds.

Nala Robotics

When was the business launched?

Over five years ago.

And just six months ago, Nala Robotics opened its first restaurant in Naperville, Illinois under the name Nala Restaurants Group. He currently has three fully automated restaurants, including One Mean Chicken, Surya Tiffins, and Thai 76. All of the restaurants he builds are one-person operations. All other tasks are performed by robots.

Nala Robotics also offers its technology to QSR chains and independent restaurants.

How it works?

The current version of Nala Robotics can do all the tasks of a chef except cleaning and plating, but Sunkara says the next version will include those features. The robot has sensor processing capabilities that help it sense its environment. If a person places a pepper shaker on a counter, for example, they can still recognize the container and grab it.

Once a restaurant operator enters recipes into the machine’s database, the robot will create the meal the same way every time.

How does it work in an existing restaurant model?

The robot is modular and can be adapted to a restaurant’s layout and calibrated to perform specific tasks without disrupting kitchen staff.

“They’re supposed to work with humans alongside them,” Sunkara said. “They’re not going to hit a human. They have vision.

How much employee training is needed?

The training is fairly minimal, with most focusing on how to upload recipes into Nala Robotics and how to maintain the machine. It requires regular cleaning.

How does it improve work?

Let’s see how technology has saved our lives. Let’s talk about computers. If you look back to the late 90s, we were all worried about computers stealing our jobs,” said Sunkara. “But technology can improve the quality of our lives. That’s what robots are going to do.

What is the cost ?

Customization determines the price of a Nala Robotics product, but a typical robot with two arms, four burners, and four fryers can cost between $150,000 and $180,000. The company offers rental and direct purchase options.

Current partners

While Sunkara didn’t reveal who the company spoke to, he said he expects announcements in the next two to three months.


Autec makis and nigiri

Thai Phi Le / Restaurant Dive

When was the business launched?

Autec was started as a manufacturer of audio equipment in 1962. In the 1980s, the company held an employee competition for potential ideas for a new product. The winner? A toy sushi maker. In 1984, Autec had created its automatic sushi machine.

How it works?

Autec now offers four types of sushi robots: a maki cutter, which cuts sushi rolls; a rice paper maker; a nigiri maker who creates rice balls; and a rice mixer to combine sushi rice and seasonings.

A typical workflow for making sushi involves making the rice paper, laying out the ingredients, rolling it, and cutting each roll before a chef plates it. Sushi robots can perform any or all of these tasks, except for plating, if a restaurant owner chooses to purchase each of them. The products work quickly – a rice paper maker, for example, can produce up to 300 rice papers in 15 minutes. Operators can choose to assign one employee per machine or assign one staff member to control them all.

How does it work in an existing restaurant model?

Sushi bots can sit on a counter.

How much employee training is needed?

Very minimal training is required. The company claims that a chef with no sushi experience can learn to use the robots in 15 minutes.

How does it improve work?

The main purpose of sushi robots is to improve efficiency and reduce the time spent wrapping rolls and cutting them. This frees up chefs to have more time to plate and communicate with customers, as well as work on less repetitive tasks, like frying salmon skin or developing menu strategies based on the ingredients of the day.

What is the cost ?

Most restaurants start with the maki maker, which costs $14,000.

Current partners

Kona Grill and HEB grocery chain. Autec’s robots also helped Super Bowl sushi operations at Sofi Stadium earlier this year.

richtech Robotics

“Adam” the robot barista

Thai Phii Le / Restaurant Dive

When was the business launched?

The China-based company has been in business for about 20 years, but started moving into the United States with its robots about a year and a half ago. It has Matradee, a food runner, and Adam, a barista robot.

How it works?

Customers order from a tablet, choosing from a host of typical coffee options, including the type (such as espresso or Americano), different syrup flavors and the amount of sugar or milk they ‘they want.

From there, Adam’s dual-arm system will create the coffee based on presets programmed by the restaurant, such as what “extra” milk means.

Adam was also tested pouring beer and wine. He can grab and tilt a mug with one hand and turn on the beer tap with the other. As the beer flows, he straightens the cup, closes the tap and then puts it back down.

The execution is similar for wine, but it’s in automatic verse, so Adam takes a wine glass, places it under the pourer, and fills it up to a designated amount.

How does it work in an existing restaurant model?

Richtech is still tweaking Adam, but the robot usually stands behind a bar or counter.

Adam is currently only making demo appearances at trade shows and other events.

BellaBot, Lucki, Matradee, Servi Plus, Robotic Segway

Robotic Bear

Source of images

There were several iterations of food and bus robots at the NRA show, developed by companies such as Pudu Robotics, OrionStar, Richtech, Bear Robotics and Segway Robotics.

Despite different appearances, such as cute kitten ears or a chef’s hat, the functionality was quite similar across all robots. Each robot could be routed according to a restaurant’s floor plan, moving using vision sensors to bring food and drinks to tables on tiered trays.

There were a few small variations, however. OrionStar’s Lucki, for example, can communicate in 27 languages, while Richtech’s Matradee offers up to 100 different mapping options. The latter is useful if a restaurant has variations of floor plans for different types of events, such as a small private function or a large party.

Although specific costs are difficult to pinpoint because robotics are often tailored to each restaurant, some robots on the show were priced at $1,000 per month, while others cost $24,000 to purchase outright.


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