Last April, less than a year ago, The Spoon held its first food robotics summit. Not to toot our own horn, but by any measure it was a success. Sellout crowd. All the cool robot startups attended. And major retailer and restaurant chain buyers came to hear about the future of food automation and strike deals. It seemed, at least then, that the robot revolution had begun.
But the promise of food robots has apparently run headlong into the realities of running a startup. The opening week of the new year and new decade has been brutal for food robot startups. Consider:
- Robot barista company Cafe X shut down three of its downtown San Francisco locations and asked employees to take two weeks of unpaid leave to save cash.
- Zume, which garnered lots of attention in its early days for its pizza-making robots, is reportedly laying off 400 staff, representing 80 percent of its workforce. UPDATE: CNBC reported that Zume actually laid of 360 staff and shuttered its pizza delivery business.
- Softbank reportedly backed out of funding Creator, the robot hamburger restaurant in SF.
And while it happened last year, Miso Robotics, which makes Flippy the robot, lost its CEO and COO in September of last year, and when it wanted to raise more money it turned to equity crowdfunding. This was notable given that Miso had raised $13 million in venture funding previously. Were those institutional funding avenues no longer welcoming?
Given this glut of bad news, it’s easy to think that the food robot revolution is over before it has really begun. But I’m actually a bit more bullish, and think this is more of a growing pains phase and there are some reasons to be optimistic.
While Cafe X did close its three downtown locations, the company launched the third generation of its robot and launched two new locations recently at the San Jose Airport and San Francisco Airport (SFO). Additionally, the company is working on getting its NSF certification so it can operate as a vending machine, allowing the robot to be open longer hours and without a human present (which is handy at airports!).
While everyone pegs Zume as a robot pizza company, the robots only did some things like pull crusts out of the oven. The company was really more about data. It’s just as easy to pin the blame on Zume’s lack of focus as it had acquired a compostable packaging company to launch a whole line of packaging last year as well as a mobile ghost kitchen business.
Creator getting stiffed could equally be attributable to Softbank, which has reportedly backed out of more than one startup funding deal as it wades through its WeWork debacle. Softbank, was involved with Zume, investing $375 million in that company in 2018, with a reported additional $375 million to follow at a later date.
Other food robotics startups seem to be doing alright (though we don’t have access to their books). Picnic just raised $5 million and launched its pizza assembly robot, which can crank out 300 pizzas an hour. Chowbotics released its Sally 2.0 salad robot and is rolling out to college campuses. And Briggo opened up its robotic Coffee Haus at its first Whole Foods, as well as a location at SFO and has a deal with SSP America to launch its robo-baristas at 25 additional airport locations.
This rough patch is probably a good time for everyone in the industry to pause and assess what we really want from robots, or even whether or not “robots” are what we really want. Perhaps we should move away from referring to them as robots and call them machines. The term robots carries too much sci-fi baggage (the Terminator, Rosie the robot, etc.) and artificially inflates expectations among consumers and investors.
“Machines,” on the other hand, strip away that baggage. We know they are meant to work all day, consistently, pretty much non-stop. So they can do jobs at odd hours when humans don’t, or do jobs that a more dangerous for a person (working a deep fryer).
We’re soon going to be surrounded by a new wave of vending machines like Chowbotics, Briggo, Blendid and hot ramen dispenser Yo-Kai Express. These companies are all trying to upend what a vending machine is by serving fresh and well crafted food quickly. They won’t replace restaurants, and they aren’t meant to. They are meant to get a lot of people a tasty meal at a reasonable price quickly.
The automated food revolution is coming, it just might not be roboticized.