Yo-Kai Express, which started out as a robotic ramen vending machine, is expanding its offerings with the addition of a mobile, self-driving version of its vending machine as well as a countertop cooking device in 2021. Yo-Kai Founder and CEO, Andy Lin, announced the new products during my fireside chat with him at the Smart Kitchen Summit: Japan last night.
Both moves are part of a larger push by Yo-Kai to transform itself into a broader platform. As Lin explained it, Yo-Kai is assembling the pieces so users can get hot ramen wherever they are, whenever they want.
One of the ways it is doing this is by making its vending machines mobile. Lin said that Yo-Kai has been working on a self-driving version of its vending machine. This autonomous restaurant-on-wheels will eventually be able to drive on certain routes and stop when hailed by a mobile phone and, Lin said, even when a person waves at it while the machine passes by.
That vision is still a ways off, but Lin said the first version of this self-driving ramen machine is already being manufactured and should debut at the end of Q1 2021/beginning of Q2. Yo-Kai is currently in talks with the Universities of California at Berkeley and Irvine to have the machine operate on those campuses. Going the college route makes sense for Yo-Kai, as it helps the company sidestep some of the regulatory hurdles around self-driving vehicles on public city streets. This is the same path that Starship took with its autonomous delivery robots.
The mobile machine is just one of many different, err, vehicles Yo-Kai is adopting to dispense its hot ramen. The company is also working on machines built for small or large offices, as well as your kitchen counter. Last night, Lin also unveiled Yo-Kai’s new Takumi, a new cooking device for the home.
The Takumi ties in with the line of mail-order ramen that Yo-Kai launched earlier this year. Currently, Yo-Kai mails out ramen kits that you have to assemble; they take about 15 minutes to fully prepare. In its next iteration, the ramen will be made, frozen and shipped to you in a single-serve container. Users will put the container into the Takumi, which uses steam to reconstitute and heat the ramen in just a few minutes.
In addition to offering more ways to get ramen, Yo-Kai is also opening up its platform to offer customers ramen from different restaurants. Yo-Kai is currently in talks to co-brand and sell meals from well-known ramen houses in Japan. Yo-Kai will work with these restaurants to recreate thos ramen restaurant recipes in Yo-Kai kitchens. Those meal will then be sold via branded ramen machines, and they will also be sold by mail order to consumers, who can cook it in their Takumi.
We’ve seen this type of co-branding elsewhere with automated vending services. Blendid, which makes a smoothie making robot, recently announced a co-branding deal with Jamba, and Chowbotics partnered with Saladworks on a salad making robot. Co-branding will likely be the main strategy for vending services going forward, as it leverages the brand recognition of a well-known restaurant, rather than trying to build up the robot company’s brand.
As Lin explained to me when I first met him last year, in Japanese folklore, Yo-Kais are ghosts that can appear anywhere at any time. With its forthcoming moves, Yo-Kai Express’ ramen will be doing much the same thing.