According to a June 12 SEC filing, secretive San Francisco-based startup Momentum Machines has secured $18.39 million in a new round of venture funding, adding to previous investments from VC firms including Google Ventures and Khosla Ventures. Made up of “foodies and engineers with decades of robotics experience,” the startup focusses on replacing humans with food robots in the kitchens of fast-food restaurants – with the aim of producing gourmet quality food that can be sold at fast food prices.
Putting the Fast Into Fast Food
In 2012, Momentum Machines debuted a robot that could make nearly 400 custom hamburgers in an hour, in a fully autonomous process. From slicing and dicing the toppings, to grilling the patties, and assembling and bagging the resulting burgers, the orders would travel from kitchen to customer untouched by human hands.
“Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient,” the company’s co-founder, Alexandros Vardakostas, told a business publication at the time, “It’s meant to completely obviate them.” The company did add that letting robots fill in for humans in the kitchen may actually promote job growth – at least at Momentum – because the automation would allow the company to hire new employees to continue developing their technology, and to staff additional restaurant locations.
A job posting last year described what consumers may expect in the first Momentum Machines’ restaurant, and also divulged the location of a possible first location, saying, “The burgers sold at 680 Folsom will be fresh-ground and grilled to order, served on toasted brioche, and accented by an infinitely personalizable variety of fresh produce, seasonings, and sauces.”
Future menus or locations could offer more than just burgers. “Our various technologies can produce an ever-growing list of common choices like salads, sandwiches, hamburgers, and many other multi-ingredient foods with a gourmet focus,” the company’s website says.
While there is still no scheduled opening date for the store, and requests for information were not answered, a building permit to turn the ground-floor retail space at 680 Folsom Street in San Francisco into a restaurant, indicates that progress is being made.
Momentum Machines’ technology may eliminate the need for traditional kitchen staff, but front-of-house and custodial or maintenance staff will still be required for cleaning and keeping the equipment sanitary and functioning as it should.
Starship Enterprise-like Tech
Momentum Machines is not alone in seeing a robot-run future in the restaurant business. The shortage of cooks, rising minimum wage, and close availability of funding in Silicon Valley could explain the trend in San Francisco for restaurant experiences with humans removed from the equation – like Eatsa that opened in downtown San Fran in 2015. A vegetarian restaurant that specializes in quinoa bowls and that automates the ordering and pick-up process, and the concept has since expanded to New York and Washington, DC.
I had read about long Eastsa lines at lunch time and was prepared to wait on a recent visit before the 4th of July. Lines were however not in evidence as the restaurant was closed from the Friday before the long weekend. I suspect that this was because of its situation in the financial district, and low weekend / pre-holiday foot traffic, rather than a business not doing well, as the district was deserted all weekend as well as the Monday before the holiday. Major disappointment that I wouldn’t see my made-to-order veggie bowl appearing in the rectangular units that look like today’s take on the replicators that synthesized food on the Starship Enterprise.
While Eatsa was closed, I was able to try a machine-made, and robot-barista served coffee at Cafe X, situated at the Metreon in San Francisco. Café X is the brainchild of Henry Hu, 23, a recipient of a Thiel Fellowship, motivated by his hatred of standing in lines to indulge his coffee habit. Thanks to his invention, other San Fran coffee lovers who hate lines can now get their coffee fix in seconds.
The robot, encased in a spherical, plexiglass shell, is a six-axis, industrial robot that can be found on many assembly lines. It performs a pre-defined set of motions, such as moving a cup from under the milk dispenser to the syrup dispenser, or delivering a cup to the window where the customer is standing – a move followed by an up-and-down movement which looks like a wave.
While it is not that intelligent, it’s very fast. Café X can prepare between 100 and 120 drinks per hour, depending on the complexity of the orders, according to Hu. Customers can choose the brand of beans and customize the amount of milk and flavors used.
Although not as hot as I would have liked, my latte was good, and I had a great chat with its human minder who babysits it full time, and who explained the various offerings available. Long after my memory of the coffee is gone, the memory that will stay with me is probably of that fun human interaction. In the rush to create new tech it is easy to forget the importance of engagement to a business as well as a city.
Autonomous eateries like Eatsa and Café X, along with the development of AI technology that could displace humans, have prompted a San Francisco politician to consider a “robot tax” to help offset the economic hardship a major increase in a robotic workforce might bring. Companies that use robots to perform tasks previously done by humans would pay the city, the idea being that the funds might then be used to help retrain workers who lose their jobs to robots or to finance a basic income initiative.
Gail is a Chicago-based food scientist who writes for leading US and European food and technology publications. A devotee of all things shiny, electronic and buzzing, with a passion for building on-line communities and conservation, she is an entrepreneur and founder of a sustainability and social media startup who moonlights on weekends as DJ Moongirl on Moonalice Radio. Clients range from rock bands and media companies to high-tech startups.