Whether it’s the Pazzi, Flippy or Cafe X, the food robots we often write about are articulating arms that swing about to prepare and serve up food. But there are a lot of existing restaurants where that form factor wouldn’t really work given the space and how the food is served. Think of fast casual establishments like Chipotle or Subway, where the food is prepared and sitting in bins behind a glass counter, and you walk down the line telling an employee what to include and to omit.
A nascent startup called Gourmeon is developing a robot that could be retrofitted into these types of restaurants to automate food order fulfillment. The “Giosk” (a portmanteau of Gourmeon and kiosk) is a four-axis gantry style robot, scooping up the already cooked or cold ingredients from bins to assemble food bowls.
The typical restaurant “bench” is 12 feet long, and each Giosk is three feet long, so a restaurant owner would line up three to four of them to assemble the various ingredients. For example, one Giosk would dish up meat selection while another would serve rice and yet another would do other toppings and so on. There would be separate utensils for each ingredient to avoid cross contamination. The Giosk currently doesn’t have computer vision, so it can’t identify food by looking at it. Instead, it uses a coordinate system to select and serve the correct ingredient.
But you won’t be talking directly to the Giosk, telling it you’d like guacamole but not sour cream. Instead, it will be taking and fulfilling orders placed online or via in-store kiosks. Additionally, right now the robot can only make bowl foods, a common capability for today’s food robots (see: Chowbotics and Spyce). But it doesn’t have the finesse required to roll up a burrito.
The Giosk was invented by Shambhu Roy, a mechanical engineer who used to work at Applied Materials. He didn’t start off wanting to build a restaurant robot. “I had built a [home] cooking appliance robot, and then I was trying to raise money,” Roy told me by phone. “One of the people I contacted was a restaurant owner.” That owner told Roy that his robot would actually be good for his bench-style restaurant. Recognizing that the consumer market can be tough, Roy pivoted to adapt his robot to work in restaurants.
Roy says there are a few different ways Giosks can help a restaurant business. The first is in labor costs. Food service is an area that will become heavily automated, since robots can work all day without taking a break and never call in sick. And if Giosk is taking care of online orders, a restaurant won’t need as many employees working at once. But beyond that, Roy says Giosk will help restaurants better control their inventory because the robot will dispense the same amount of food every time (no extra cheese for you!). Additionally it can reduce order errors because it won’t misunderstand a person and can’t be distracted or forget to add something.
Because of his mechanical engineering background, Roy went ahead and built a full-fledged version of the Giosk. He’s been issued two patents on it and he says he has several more pending. A Giosk with two stations will cost about $80,000, and Roy says that restaurants can earn that back in three years time. Those numbers will get put to the test as the first Giosk will be piloted by a restaurant in Sacramento, where Roy is based.
Right now, the biggest challenge for Gourmeon is software. Roy hasn’t raised any funding yet, so he can’t afford to hire a software engineer, and software is key in order for Gourmeon to survive and scale. The company needs to develop the software that plugs into a restaurant’s ticketing system so it can translate orders received into food prepared.
Ultimately, Roy wants to get back into the consumer market. He’s got a five-station home-cooking robot that works, but first, he has to get Gourmeon up and running and successful otherwise he can wave those dreams goodby (with an automated articulating hand).
Want to know about the future of food robots? Be sure to attend Articulate, our food robotics & automation summit in San Francisco on April 16.