Are robot chefs the future of food? Chatting with the maker of Flippy, the burger-making robot

Are robot chefs the future of food? In this episode of TechFirst with John Koetsier, we chat with Buck Jordan, the cofounder of Miso Robotics, which makes Flippy … the robot that cooks.

We talk about the future of robots in restaurant kitchens, whether this is killing jobs or not, what’s available now and what’s coming next. We also chat about home kitchens: whether we’ll get robots to cook all our food in our homes … and when that might be affordable.

All my TechFirst videos are recorded live, warts and all. In this one I tried to share a video of the robot actually working … and it failed. Also, my audio is really low (although we fixed that in the audio podcast). Apologies!

Here’s the story on Forbes …

And … scroll down for the full audio, video, and transcript.

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Watch: Chatting with the maker of Flippy, the burger-making robot

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Read: Robot chefs, Flippy, and the future of food

(This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

John Koetsier: Are robot chefs the future of food? Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier. We’re pretty familiar with robots and manufacturing now. We’re starting to get accustomed to the idea that robots can drive, or they can deliver food or other things to us, maybe even through the air via drone. What about robots that make our food? And will robots make most or even maybe all of our food someday soon?

To get some insight and dive in, we’re chatting with Buck Jordan. He’s the cofounder and chairman of Miso Robotics, which makes Flippy … the robot that cooks. Welcome, Buck. How are you? 

Buck Jordan: I’m great. Thanks for having me. 

John Koetsier: Hey, super good to have you. Tell us what Flippy is. 

Buck Jordan: So Flippy is the world’s first autonomous kitchen assistant capable of grilling and frying food to consistent and delicious perfection. So Flippy runs on a proprietary algorithm, really an AI platform with different applications that Flippy can plug into. So grilling is one application, frying is another.

The software Flippy runs on allows Flippy to integrate with the operational workflow of the kitchen, in order to optimize production speeds, freshness, and improve customer service by allowing employees to shift to the front of house where needs are drastically increasing these days.

So, Flippy’s also fully autonomous, so all the food Flippy cooks is made with minimal human contact which can reduce the exposure to dangerous pathogens.

So really Flippy is the intelligent solution the industry needs to tackle the existing challenges operators are facing in a post-pandemic world. And really, I think it is the path for future growth .

John Koetsier: Interesting. It sounds like you’ve said that a few times. I was going to try and share a video of Flippy in action but, for whatever reason, it’s not working. There was a big black screen there, so we won’t do that right now. Tell us a little bit about Flippy. Like how fast is it … how many burgers or nuggets or fries can Flippy handle?

Buck Jordan: Well, Flippy is really fast, as you’d imagine. He is a robot. You know, speed can vary depending on different factors like the food, the structure of the food, temperature needed to cook it perfectly.

But to date, Flippy has fried over 6,000 pounds of food and cooked over 12,000 burgers. And Flippy can cook a lot of different types of foods, so we’re up to 17 different fried food items. And Flippy has also figured out how to cook the Impossible Burger, so, you know, Flippy has gone vegan. 

John Koetsier: That’s good. 17 different types — that’s pretty cool actually, because of course you don’t want 15 robots, you don’t want to have to buy 15 robots for your restaurant, right? So if it can do multiple things in one place, that’s great. You also have a deal with White Castle that you recently signed in … I think a month ago, or something like that—

Buck Jordan: Mm-hmm.

John Koetsier: To potentially expand to hundreds of locations. When you’re pitching to a restaurant like White Castle or somebody else, what’s the pitch? Is it cost savings? Is it efficiency? Modernization? Consistency? What’s the pitch? 

Buck Jordan, CEO at Wavemaker Labs & President, Chairman & Cofounder at Miso Robotic

Buck Jordan: So I’d say it’s all of that and a whole lot more. With White Castle, we started talking about a year ago. They came to us with many of the same challenges the industry has been facing as a whole.

Labor turnover, which is a huge challenge because turnover rates at that time, and really today even, are upwards of 150%. So that means these employees are leaving every six to nine months.

So really just when they start getting good at their job, they’re out the door. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

Buck Jordan: And that’s just one operational cost that makes it hard to remain competitive for restaurants.

You know, the on-demand delivery culture also is gaining traction, or it certainly was pre-pandemic and is now exploded. And that really cuts into profits. I mean, a lot of these apps take 30% off the top line.

And of course that was all pre-pandemic, and now everything is just exacerbated and operators have hit a new set of challenges to navigate.

So labor is still a big issue, but it’s because of social distancing requirements. So, you can’t just have the same amount of staff in the kitchen as we used to and also stay productive and fulfill orders at a rate that can turn a profit. I mean, six feet apart is almost impossible to do in today’s modern kitchens, they’re very — they’re elbow to elbow. 

John Koetsier: Yeah.

Buck Jordan: And so having a robot in the kitchen gives you a worker that you don’t have to account for when it comes to social distancing. And with more deliveries to fulfill, you need staff at the front of house, so having Flippy making the food allows you to get all the orders out the door fast.

And in truth, I think the industry as a whole was already starting to think about automation. You know, we had a lot of interest before, but now the pandemic is here, everything has accelerated dramatically. Everyone is coming to us and saying basically just, ‘Hey, I need to automate. I need to do it now, and can you help me?’

John Koetsier: Wow. Interesting. Do you think that in the future that could be entirely automated? Like a McDonald’s or a Wendy’s or something like that? Or is that not in the cards, at least in the immediate future? 

Buck Jordan: I would say not in the immediate future, but I will give you like a forecast, let’s say.

You know, my view of kitchens in the future is I think that over the next five to seven years, it’s companies like Miso — like, it’s the only one in the market today, but companies like Miso coming in and automating spots in the kitchen — like we’ll knock out the fryer, we’ll knock out the grill, but you’re still working with humans in the kitchen. I

think starting in the next two years, you’re going to see an explosion of really high quality, small footprint delivery kiosks — think high quality vending machines, kind of express menus.

But then I think around year five or seven, you’re going to start seeing a lot of … a lot or all new-build kitchens being completely reinvented, fully autonomous, no humans in the back of house, 25% the square footage, probably fits in a shipping container, completely changing the entire industry and potentially disrupting the franchise model.

John Koetsier: Wow! Very interesting, especially when you put that together with the growth of cloud kitchens and restaurants that you’re not intended to dine at or anything like that. 

Buck Jordan: Yeah. 

John Koetsier: Well, you mentioned that you can cook 17 different things. I was going to ask what’s next for Flippy, or maybe a different robot that maybe you have in development. You know, what’s — you’ve got frying, you’ve got burgers, you’ve got fries, you’ve got chicken nuggets, or wings, or stuff like that.

What else do you want to automate? 

Buck Jordan: Well, right now we really want to continue to evolve our design to deliver as much value to operators as possible at a much cheaper price. You know, ’cause we are selling to franchisees who are oftentimes a small business owner, so we don’t want a big upfront cost.

One way we’re doing that is to get the cost down to the hardware, so that ideally by next year we can give the arm away for free. So … no upfront cost and just a monthly SaaS fee.

Which also means we’re making our SaaS offering even stronger. So we’re looking at other things we can bake into it to make it more valuable so operators get more, for instance, a significant amount of insights in the back of house, so they can be more efficient, like precise inventory management.

You know, so our AI is really just a super valuable platform for operators and some may just be interested in optimizing how they cook other items like steak, for instance. So we’re also exploring how we can give operators access to our AI without the robot being attached to it all the time. 

John Koetsier: That is really interesting. I just did an interview with the CEO of a warehousing robot company and they offer robots as a service. It’s a subscription, and that’s how you purchase it. And it’s very, very interesting because the upfront cost otherwise can be really, really challenging, right?

And by the way, a steak cooking robot … I’m in line. 

Buck Jordan: Yeah. Coming sooner than you think. 

John Koetsier: So, you mentioned the AI platform and you’ve built that so that your robots can learn faster, they can improve. Talk a little bit about the AI that you’re using, that you’re working with there, and then maybe also what learning or improvement did the AI come up with that surprised you? 

Buck Jordan: Well, it’s been a little bit of a journey, as you can imagine. You know, we started out focused on physically flipping a burger. And we were lucky enough to have CaliBurger as our first customer, and my buddy John Miller, who’s the owner of CaliBurger, as an advisor.

So it started out, he knew the restaurant business, we knew robots. So, building the AI became all about building it for what restaurants really needed, as opposed to a lot of, I would say, tech founders who are entering the restaurant industry who are not operators, who are just kind of trying to figure it out, you know. So we had a big leg up in the beginning.

So we’ve really focused on teaching Flippy to move like a chef’s arm moves. Adding sensors that feed into the AI to help Flippy know when a burger is done and cooked consistently, because taste, of course, is paramount in any restaurant’s brand identity.

And a lot of the evolution has come from us being on the ground in kitchens working side by side with employees and operators to understand what we need to build in order to make their life easier. Did I answer your question? 

John Koetsier: Almost. I mean, that was great. Was there one thing that surprised you that your machine learning algorithms are always getting better, you know, you’re always learning a little bit better how to — was there something that surprised you in that stage? Or was it just sort of a natural, clean evolution?

Buck Jordan: You know, it definitely wasn’t clean. We’ve been at this for quite a while. One of the things that surprised me was that when I initially got into this, I thought it was all about the cost of labor.

But it’s not about the cost of labor, it’s the fact that labor just isn’t there. You know, so like, I mean, just quick rough numbers — these are all pre-pandemic numbers, I don’t have post-pandemic numbers — but pre-pandemic, we were missing almost a million people from the quick-serve restaurant workforce.

And over the next 10 years, we were going to — due to an explosion of delivery and also shifting demographics in the 18-24 year old workforce — we’re going to miss almost 4 million people from the workforce.

And so we’re finding all of our customers — well, we initially thought they were going to come to us for cost savings — they’re coming to us because they just cannot fill the roles. They’re opening restaurants missing one or two crew members every single time. 

John Koetsier: Wow.

Buck Jordan:  And it’s a real challenge. 

John Koetsier: That’s really interesting and maybe that’s good news, in a sense, is that people are graduating to jobs that take more of a human presence, or human touch, or human intelligence as well. It’s a great segue as well, because the natural concern — and I got this, and you knew this right off of the top as well — the natural concern with bringing robots into a place of work is job loss.

And you actually kind of have a different take around that and that’s freeing people to do other things and higher leverage things. Talk about that, and is that actually happening? 

Buck Jordan: A hundred percent happening.

White Castle, for example, is committed to not let anybody go as a result of adding Flippy into the kitchens. We’re hearing from workers on the ground where we’ve been piloting that having Flippy in the kitchen allows them to focus on other tasks like bagging up orders and providing memorable moments to consumers.

It was what White Castle is known for. And you know White Castle is a 24-hour joint, so you never know what you’re gonna — what you might be hit with during a late-night shift, and you might get a huge set of orders in, out of nowhere. And these late-nights shifts can be hard to fill, so you’re dealing with a skeleton crew, no way to get orders out efficiently. So having Flippy is a great value add for restaurants with a cult following of late-night cravers.

The reality is that as of September, about 20,000 restaurants have permanently closed because of the pandemic. And that is crazy. Like this is an industry that is really just holding on by its fingernails and automation can really keep it open. And once they shut those doors, jobs are really going to go away. 

John Koetsier: Yup.

Buck Jordan: And one thing I would say about just kind of the shifting nature of quick-serve restaurant jobs, you know, ’cause I would say that largely, if you take a quick-serve restaurant job, you’re not necessarily being trained for a whole lot of other tasks beyond that. You know, many people use it as like a stepping stone to just go on to whatever they want to do with their lives.

But I believe that once the nature of kitchen changes, and when a restaurant worker is no longer just operating a fryer or a grill, but he’s operating an iPad and working with advanced robotics, you know, I believe that that person is now being trained for something else. 

John Koetsier: Very, very interesting. What I also saw is that in this late-night scenario where — and I’ve seen it actually, like I’ve seen a wedding party just show up at a restaurant at like midnight or something and there’s 25 people and they all want something.

But the good thing about Flippy is that it’s integrated with the point of sale system, correct? So, I mean, you punch that order in, it knows and it starts going, is that correct? 

Buck Jordan: Yeah, so Flippy is integrated with the point of sale system, so it knows exactly when to go, there’s no buttons to push.

But we go a couple steps further. So, oftentimes when you go to a burgers and fries joint, you might order a burger and what’ll happen is like the burger line is backed up by 10 minutes, the fry line is open now so you drop the fries, cooks for three minutes, sits under heat lamp for seven waiting for your burger to be ready.

But, so Flippy now knows — because it has cameras and computer vision all over the kitchen — it knows that the burger line is backed up by 10 minutes, so don’t drop those fries til minute seven, so it all comes off hot, fresh, and ready for the customer for maximum freshness.

The biggest problem is that now we’re all eating through delivery, which means that every one of our meals is taking a 15-minute Uber ride before it even gets to us. So it better not be sitting, cooling down for 10 minutes at the restaurant before the driver gets there. And that’s happening today.

So now we can pipe into delivery applications, know exactly when the driver’s going to arrive at the restaurant, and then the goal, of course, is to have the thing cooked and bagged up seconds before the guy gets there for maximum freshness. 

John Koetsier: I absolutely love that. It is pandemic times. My wife and I have a favorite local restaurant which is partially open now and we go to, but we’ve also ordered from it. And we’ve actually gone and picked it up because — we do that with our pizza too ’cause we like it hot, absolutely the freshest it can be, right — but even doing that and picking it up ourselves, it probably sat in the kitchen for a little while. It wasn’t quite as good as it could have been, wasn’t quite as hot as it should have been, other things like that.

But if you can time that up, that’s huge value add, because now you’re adding product quality, as you were talking about earlier.

Buck Jordan: For sure. And you know, what gets me really excited about robotics and food isn’t the labor savings. I think that’s great and that keeps operators alive, but I love finding things that robots can do that humans just can’t.

You know, like providing a massive amount of customization, elevating quality. Like for instance, like if you’re making a pizza, we’ve all ordered half pepperoni and half sausage, right? But imagine if you could order all eight slices a different thing: a Hawaiian, pepperoni, mushroom.

Like a human is never, ever, ever going to do that, but a robot can do that.

John Koetsier: Very interesting. Very cool. So the commercial food business is a natural entry point. Maybe Miso never goes into the home market, I don’t know, but maybe you do. Kind of my dream, maybe it’s a little Star Trek, is that I have a kitchen that cooks, bakes, makes whatever I want, whenever I want it.

Do you see that happening? And any idea of a timeline as to when that might happen? 

Buck Jordan: Well, that’s my dream too. That’s not going to be Miso’s dream, ‘cause Miso just has so much to do on the commercial market, but that is a fascinating area to dive into. But I would say that Miso is definitely focused on the commercial kitchen market.

You know, overall, automation is coming into the customer arena in a big way. I would say personal kitchens will definitely see a lot of automation. I’ve got some thoughts on that, but like, from just the general food on Miso’s side, the future’s already here. We have standalone machines that can cook a pizza in less than three minutes from scratch. We have automated Boba tea bars hitting the scene. And all these things just make it easier for customers to get low-touch food options faster and close to home.

And really, I would say having a robot cook your favorite foods fast, consistently, and to your own liking is already a dream that’s being fulfilled. You just might have to walk down to your apartment lobby to get it from a machine instead of having it made in your kitchen. But I do think that building robotics into the home is going to happen, and it will also be financeable by your home loan. 

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm, or built right into your new home that you build, or built into the renovation that you do or anything like that. And tying it into your— 

Buck Jordan: I think it has to be. 

John Koetsier: What’s that? 

Buck Jordan: I think it has to be built in. 

John Koetsier: Yeah. And tied into your fridge as well so it knows what’s there, knows here’s what you can have tonight based on the ingredients I have, or order/reorder ingredients, other things like that. I hope to have that, maybe in 10 years or something like that. Does that sound realistic? 

Buck Jordan: That’s realistic. That’s realistic. But I think it’s going to be in like higher-end restaurants or like centralized in an apartment building. There might be one centralized kitchen cooking for the entire apartment building or condo.

But I think that when you start dealing with like kind of $2 million homes or above — because the system you’re talking about, and I’ve thought a lot about it, I think it’ll run about $100 grand or so.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Buck Jordan:  Maybe a little bit more. But like — and that’s a big, big nut to crack. And so you have to have that rolled into a high purchase price of a home, also be part of the home loan process. So it’s just, you know, if you’re buying a $2 million home, would you spend an extra $100 grand to have it be a fully autonomous kitchen? Like I’d spend $500 grand, you know. 

John Koetsier: I’m not scared by the $100 grand, not because I want to pay the $100 grand, but because I want lots of people to pay that $100 grand and I want that price to come down really, really quickly. Because that’s what we see in electronics, and that’s what we see in the world of manufacturing as we get smarter about this stuff and build it better.

And pretty soon, you know, maybe it might take three, four, six years after that, maybe it’s $10 grand or something like that, right? And I look forward to that future. 

Buck Jordan: Yeah, for sure. 

John Koetsier: So his podcast is about tech that’s changing the world — robot chefs are doing that — and innovators who are shaping the future. I want to ask you a bit of a more personal question. Why do you do what you do? Why did you get into this space in the first place? And what change do you hope to see in the world thanks to what you’re doing?

Buck Jordan: So, I left a career in venture capital to start this company, because I’ve never seen an opportunity so big as the challenge of automation in food, and such a dearth of competition. So that was why I initially entered.

But as I got into it, I started realizing that automation that’s happening all around the world — and I’m going to include like farm-to-fork, you know, all the whole supply chain of food including prep — as you automate different parts of that, what you’re going to end up with is a much higher quality food for the masses, more highly customized, at a much, much cheaper price.

And so, I can get pretty passionate about providing really high quality food affordably to large swaths of the population. And as companies like Miso come out, that is going to be the outcome. 

John Koetsier: Excellent. Excellent. I can hear that passion, it’s a wonderful thing. I want to thank you for joining us on TechFirst. 

Buck Jordan: Thanks a lot. Great to meet you. 

John Koetsier: For everybody else, my name is John Koetsier. I appreciate you being along for the show as well. You’ll be able to get a full transcript of this podcast in about a week at JohnKoetsier.com, sometimes it’s two days, but sometimes a week.

The story at Forbes usually comes out right after that. And the full video is available on YouTube. Thanks for joining. Until next time … this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.

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