The restaurant industry has seen its share of futuristic innovations and bots, particularly in the fast-casual and quick service restaurant (QSR) spaces. Spyce is the latest to launch one of its own: A fully robotic kitchen that enables the bowl-based restaurant to fit into a postage stamp of real estate in Boston’s bustling Downtown Crossing district.
At Spyce, guests enter by way of a copper archway, which welcomes them into the all-copper realm of the robotic kitchen. Orders are placed through kiosks with the guidance of employees, then meals are prepared almost magically before customers’ eyes. Guests can watch the construction of their bowls from start to finish — from assembly to wok to bowl — all in under three minutes and without a single human hand touching the meal, except to garnish and hand it to them.
The QSR Automation Scene
As companies strive to deliver a better, more consistent product at greater speed and less cost, food prep automation has become attractive to many as a singular technology that can solve all of these problems in one fell swoop. Well, except for maybe cost. The idea, though, is for these techs to pay for themselves over time, even if the initial investment appears daunting.
Take Flippy, the burger-flipping robot created by Miso Robotics and deployed at select CaliBurger restaurants, which could, one day, fully automate kitchen operations for the QSR. For now, it still needs human hands to cut veggies and place cheese on patties.
The $60,000 robot can flip burgers twice as fast as a human — and, since it’s probably replacing one or two of those, a QSR could probably break even on a Flippy bot within a year or two. Miso Robotics Co-founder and CEO David Zito has said that the company sees itself as a tech company first and a restaurant second, although he does believe that human creativity will always be needed when creating recipes.
It’s interesting, then, to see a food space innovator take the exact opposite approach to create a robotic food prep system that isn’t about replacing or reducing human involvement in the food-making process.
According to company spokesperson Grace Uvezian, Spyce is a restaurant company first and tech company second. It wouldn’t actually function at all without human employees to operate it — the robotic kitchen is a tool, not a replacement, she said.
Meet The Chef
The robotic kitchen can make 200 bowls an hour with the help of humans who load the machine with ingredients and hand off the finished product. Off-site, there is a team that does washing and cutting so the ingredients are ready to go — employees on-site need only feed them into the machine.
Uvezian said the robot takes away the monotonous, repetitive parts of QSR work and lets live employees focus on creative presentation. Rather than saving the business on labor costs, the machine enables the restaurant to fit into a smaller space, saving on rent and creating the opportunity for Spyce to launch in additional, potentially-challenging locations around Boston — and, maybe one day, beyond.
Lower rent and production costs enable Spyce to serve healthy bowls for $7.50 apiece — much less than competitors that are also serving bowls, and significantly less than the average burger in the area.
Uvezian said the startup has made a point of using fresh, quality, healthy ingredients (think Sweetgreen and other bowl-based fast-casual lunch spots), as well as bringing in talented chefs to devise recipes (hello, Daniel Boulud). She said that the focus on health and quality was the whole reason Spyce’s founders came up with the concept in the first place.
Founders Michael Farid, Brady Knight, Luke Schlueter, and Kale Rogers were busy student athletes studying at MIT. They rarely had time to cook or clean up, yet eating out every meal was costing them $10 to $12 a pop. Why, they wondered, was healthier food so much harder to get at a decent price compared to junk food?
They were, in short, being priced out of quality, Uvezian said. So like any time-strapped engineering students would do, instead of buying a stack of Lean Cuisines to microwave, the four friends started building in the basement of their frat house. The result was a wooden prototype of the machine that would one day power Spyce.
Spyce has only been open for a week, so it’s early to say what growth will look like for the company. As a restaurant-first operation, Uvezian said it will look to establish additional locations rather than looking to license its technology to other companies.
For now, Uvezian said the company is focused on getting its first location right. That means streamlining the wait process (right now, at lunchtime, customers can wait in line to order for three times longer than it takes to actually prepare their bowl). It means building out a mobile app and website that enable order-ahead functionality. It means creating and launching a loyalty and rewards program.
Spyce may have solved the “fast/healthy/cheap” challenge, but the challenge of scaling the business is still very much before them.