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Behind the scenes of Flippy’s robot-run CaliExpress restaurant

Behind the scenes of Flippy’s robot-run CaliExpress restaurant

CaliExpress by Flippy bills itself as the world’s first fully autonomous restaurant.

The fast-food restaurant operated by Miso Robotics in Pasadena, California, is an hour’s drive from my home, so after the Fourth of July, I made a trip to check out the temporary location.

At first glance, CaliExpress looks like any other modern fast-food restaurant with beverage coolers, kiosks, and booth seating.

Ann Rochanayon of Northern California thought the same thing.

Rochanayon, visiting the Los Angeles area with her family, heard about the autonomous restaurant online. The tech-savvy family dropped in for a visit.

“It looks normal,” she said, looking around the restaurant.

Even kiosks She wasn’t impressed because they had become common at many fast-food restaurants, she said.

But her first impression changed dramatically when she saw the display kitchen in action. A brand ambassador for kiosk provider PopID, Denise Koons, explained how the burger machine grinds the meat and then places the formed burger on a double-sided grill. From start to finish, the process takes 185 seconds.

“Really?” Rochanayon asked, her eyes widening in surprise.

Rochanayon and her husband immediately, like paparazzi spotting a star, rushed to the bar to film the burger-making and frying robots in action.

Still, the restaurant isn’t fully autonomous. There’s at least one employee who works with the robots. That makes sense, since someone has to prepare and assemble the food once it’s cooked.

If you want to reduce headcount, one person per shift is a game-changer.

That’s why they are being tested by national brands such as McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, White Castle and Sweetgreen. Robotics and automation in the kitchen. A startup from New York KernelThe plant-based concept from Chipotle founder Steve Ells also uses back-end robotics. For nearly three years, Nala Robotics has been fully automated restaurant in Naperville, Illinois. They feature multiple robotic chefs, including a French fry chef named Wingman.

CaliExpress by Flippy aims to showcase the possibilities of a fully robotic restaurant – an idea that is gaining popularity among fast food restaurant owners looking for a reliable and affordable workforce.

Melissa Rosen, business development representative for Miso Robotics, told Food on Demand that brands with more than 200 units, as well as several new brands, have visited the temporary restaurant to see the robotics in action.

And seeing often is believing.

“Oh, now I understand,” Rosen’s observers told him.

Next month, brands will have even more to check out as Miso Robotics introduces an improved version of the Flippy. The next-generation Flippy is smaller and twice as fast.

“We’re building a product that’s really scalable,” CEO Rich Hull told investors during a July 9 webinar about the next-generation Flippy. “That’s a huge revenue opportunity for us.”

Let’s take a closer look at CaliExpress by Flippy:

PopID Kiosks

CaliExpress uses PopID kiosks.

The restaurant features three PopID-powered kiosks that use biometrics to simplify ordering and payment. PopID is part of Cali Group, a holding company that invests in disruptive and transformative retail and restaurant technologies. CaliGroup is the majority owner of PopID and an investor in Miso Robotics, creator of Flippy, the steaming chef.

Paying with your face

Kiosk scanned my face to recover my account.

The kiosks work like most touchscreen self-ordering machines. Guests scroll to make their food selections and then pay with a credit card. Customers can also opt to pay with their face.

A QR code on the kiosk lets you create a PopID account, which uses an image of your face to log in, similar to the facial recognition software used on the iPhone.

“Your photo is converted into a secure digital key and stored in the PopID cloud,” the tech company says on its website website.

I set up my account in seconds using my phone. I had the option to save my credit card. Once registered, the PopID kiosk displayed my name after scanning my face. Once my credit card is saved, customers don’t have to pull it out when you pay with your face.

“You can forget your wallet, but you can’t forget your face” Koons talked about the convenience of PopID.

Steak n Shake in April announced plans to install PopID in more than 300 locations across the U.S., making it the first national chain to introduce biometric entry and exit checks nationwide, the two companies said.

Menu

I ordered a burger, fries, California sauce and a bottle of water.

Considering that everything is prepared by robots, I expected the CaliExpress menu to be extremely limited.

But there’s actually a lot to choose from, including a variety of wagyu beef burgers, a protein burger, a fried chicken sandwich, fried chicken strips, a garden salad, fries, onion rings and waffle sweet potato fries.

Carbonated drinks may only be bottled and contain Coca-Cola brand drinks.

Robots grill and fry food

A bot created by the automatic equipment manufacturer Cucina is responsible for preparing the burgers.

After placing their order, most people sat down and waited for their food.

But if you do that, you’ll miss all the action.

The open kitchen is equipped with a burger-making robot made by Cucina, a 15-month-old San Francisco-based automation company. The Cucina burger machine grinds the meat to order, then places the formed patty on the double-sided grill. The grill then flattens and cooks the patty.

The entire process takes about 185 seconds from start to finish.

The bot can prepare approximately 100 cutlets per hour.

Flippy steps into action

Miso Robotics uses CaliExpress to showcase Flippy.

Deep in the kitchen, Flippy is hard at work manning four fryers that are churning out fries, waffles, onion rings, and chicken.

Flippy, the star of CaliExpress, can fry about 250 pounds of fries an hour. The AI-powered robot arm moves along a rail system, serving multiple baskets at once.

Rosen said interest in Flippy has surged in the past few months as many restaurant chains struggle with staffing shortages and high turnover in back-of-house positions, such as cooks.

Currently, select Jack in the Box and White Castle restaurants are testing Flippy, which first launched in 2017 as burger flipping robot.

Flippy didn’t work as a burger chef for long.

Alana Abbitt, Miso’s vice president and head of product development, told Food on Demand that Miso Robotics gave up on burgers as chains looked for automated solutions at frying stations.

“This station covers more menu items, so it frees up time for employees to do other tasks,” Abbitt said. “The fry station is also one of the most difficult positions to fill. Looking forward, we see Flippy as a leader in the kitchen, organizing our own products and collaborating with third-party products. In the future, that could include burger makers, like CaliExpress by Flippy.”

Flippy 3 coming soon

Miso Robotics plans to launch a faster, smaller Flippy next month.

The new version of Flippy is due out next month.

Bachir Kharraja, Miso’s chief technology officer, said during the webinar that one of the challenges with the current version of Flippy is its size. Some quick-service kitchens don’t have enough space to install the equipment because Flippy is “a little too big,” he said.

Therefore, Miso “reduces the size of the unit,” he said.

Abbitt told Food on Demand that these changes are the most significant improvements made to Flippy since the bot focused on frying.

“It is expected to be half the size, take half the time to install and be twice as fast,” she said. “It will also provide a treasure trove of critical data for restaurant operators and will feature massive improvements to Miso’s proprietary artificial intelligence and machine learning, an innovative vision system, new hardware and software design and a more intuitive user experience.”

During the webinar, Hull said Flippy could generate about $20,000 in monthly profits for restaurants.

So far, almost 36,000 investors invested over $129 million in Miso Robotics.

Say hello to Tuffy

Tuffy, the food delivery robot from Tuff Robotics, will bring food to your table.

Robotics don’t stop at CaliExpress. The pop-up restaurant recently added a food delivery robot named Tuffy.

If you choose to dine at the restaurant, Tuffy will deliver the food to your table.

Tuffy is a straightforward bot with good manners.

Armed with three red trays to carry the food, Tuffy approached my table and said, “Welcome to CaliExpress by Flippy. My name is Tuffy. Please pick up your meal.”

After I grabbed the food, I sent Tuffy back to the kitchen by tapping a message on my touchscreen tablet. Before I turned to leave, Tuffy said, “Please enjoy your meal. I’ll be back.”

The Future of Food Showcase

Chippy the fry cook was another version of Flippy.

CaliExpress by Flippy also serves as an innovation showroom.

Visitors can learn about Flippy’s development over the years. Also on display is a 3D printer, used to quickly create robot parts during the research and development phase.

Also on display was Chippy, a tortilla chip frying robot that debuted in 2021.

“Chippy is part of our innovation lab, a sandbox where we test and learn from products. Several of the lessons from Chippy are in our next-generation Flippy, which is modular to allow for any number of fryers,” Abbitt said.

The chippy was briefly tested by Chipotle in Orange County, California. However, the chain told Food on Demand that the experiment had ended.

“We tested Chippy at one restaurant in Orange County, but it did not pass our quality control process because the prep and cleaning work negated much of the labor savings,” spokeswoman Erin Wolford told Food on Demand.

Man prepared, robot cooked

Geno Castro is a manager at CaliExpress who works with robots.

CaliExpress, which opened in the spring, bills itself as “the world’s first fully autonomous restaurant.”

Well, that’s true when it comes to the culinary aspect.

But the restaurant still needs workers to prepare ingredients for the robots and assemble finished dishes once the burger patties and fried foods are ready.

That’s where Geno Castro comes in. The manager at CaliExpress was the only employee working when I visited. Rosen said she’s one of three employees working at the restaurant, which is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Sunday.

Castro prepares ingredients and helps troubleshoot robots. She said Flippy makes her life easier.

“Working with the robots is my favorite part,” she said of her various job roles. “They work mostly by themselves. The only thing that slows them down is me.”

Nancy Luna is a contributing writer to Food On Demand. She can be reached at (email protected)