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A friend of mine was walking down Melrose in LA over the weekend when a Postmates Serve robot came cruising past him, out making a delivery. He thought it was pretty cool (and shot a video!), but soon enough, seeing a robot in public is actually going to be pretty commonplace.
The COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate the automaion of the meal journey. The virus is changing how humans interact with one another (no handshakes, speaking through masks), and even when this particular pandemic recedes, chances are good that we will be more wary of strangers (heaven forbid someone coughs in public).
This is where robots come in. As I’ve written ad nauseum lately, robots don’t get sick. That means they can be sent out into any environment without worrying for their safety, and people can accept deliveries from them without the fear that germy hands have touched their food.
As a result, we’re about to see more robots running around with our food. Over in China, Keenon Robotics has 6,000 of its server robots in use in hospitality and restaurant locations. These robots are basically trays on self-driving wheels that shuttle food to and from the kitchen to the table or to a hotel room door. John Ha, Founder and CEO of Bear Robotics, told me last month that there has been increased interest in his company’s server robot, Penny.
“People come back for the food before, now people are going to pick the restaurant they can trust,” Ha told me during our interview. “People want less contact in the restaurant.”
But it’s not just inside restaurants where we’ll see more robots. Bots will come to our sidewalks and roadways too. There’s the Serve bot my friend spotted in LA. And Starship has also been ramping up its municipal delivery programs.
Starship recently launched restaurant and grocery delivery in the Fairfax, VA and Tempe, AZ areas, and last week, we learned the company is looking at Frisco, TX as another city to start delivery. Starship’s initial go-to market strategy was via college campuses, but with those closed until who knows when, the company seems to be pivoting to public delivery in nearby towns. So don’t be surprised if you see Starship robots near the University of Wisconsin-Madison (assuming the city of Madison gets on board with robots), Bowling Green University (Ohio), University of Pittsburgh, and Purdue (W. Lafayette, IN).
Up in Ann Arbor, MI, Refraction’s REV-1 has been doing lunch deliveries since the beginning of the year and recently started grocery deliveries there, too. I’m particularly curious about the REV-1 because it’s a ruggedized three-wheeled robot that can travel in bike lanes. So, unlike the small cooler robots from Starship, the REV-1 could prove useful for more spread out suburbs.
Despite all this, robots won’t be flooding our streets and sidewalks tomorrow. Part of the reason so many robots can be unleashed is that with sheltering in place, there are fewer people on the streets and roads. State and city governments still have issues around safety and revenues that need to be grappled with, and the robot companies themselves would need to drastically ramp up production if demand spreads across the country.
But city and local governments could be more willing to adopt robot-friendly policies if it means safer food deliveries and keeping more restaurants and grocery stores open. And if startups need to scale, that will mean more jobs, something the country could use right now.
Pepsi Goes Direct with Snack and Soda Sales
At a time when shopping for groceries is . . . complicated, to say the least, PepsiCo is letting consumers skip the trip to the market for snacks and drinks. Yesterday, the company launched Pantryshop.com and Snacks.com where people can load up on Frito-Lay Chips, Cap’n Crunch, Gatorade, Muscle Milk and more without leaving the house.
As my colleague, Catherine Lamb wrote:
Considering the meteoric growth of online grocery since the coronavirus pandemic began, it’s no surprise that PepsiCo is trying to take advantage by launching its own direct sales platforms. With Instacart orders, PepsiCo is competing with other brands to get in your cart. By taking the process onto their own site, they own your purchase 100 percent.
This isn’t PepsiCo’s first foray into direct sales. The company launched the Drinkfinity flavored water system a couple years back. As of right now, though, it is unclear if that is still available: the pods are listed as “currently unavailable” on Amazon and the Drinkfinity website gives an error message.
What is the Future of Kitchen Design?
The kitchen has always been the heart of the home, but will a kitchen’s design need to change after this pandemic has passed? To find out, we’re hosting a Future of Kitchen Design in the Post-COVID ERA virtual chat with Johnny Grey on May 14 at 10 a.m. Pacific.
If you’ve been tuning in, you know The Spoon’s Virtual Event series has been chock o’ block with great conversations about prototyping your own kitchen gadget, hack-proofing your connected kitchen, and learning exactly how people’s eating habits are changing under quarantine. Later this month, we’ll also be hosting:
- From Sourdough to the End of Meat: A Conversation About Fermentation as a Food Tech Platform with Sudeep Agarwala, Program Director & Biological Engineer at Ginkgo Bioworks (May 21 at 10 a.m. Pacific)
- Designing a Resilient Food System For A Post-COVID World with Holly Bybee, Senior Director, Design for Food at IDEO and Rebecca Chesney, Senior Portfolio Lead, Design for Food at IDEO (May 28 at 10 a.m. Pacific)
- Virtual Workshop: How to Think Like a Food Futurist in Uncertain Times with Max Elder, the Research Director of the Food Futures Lab for the Institute for the Future (June 4 at 10 a.m. Pacific)
All of these talks are free to watch so register for them today and follow us on CrowdCast to catch up on all virtual events we hold in the future.