Caliburger’s CEO offers vision for automated restaurants

| by Elliot Maras
Caliburger’s CEO offers vision for automated restaurants

Robots will first work side by side with humans. Photo courtesy of Miso Robotics.

Imagine a restaurant where guests sit down at a self-ordering kiosk and automatically receive suggestions based on their last order. In the kitchen, robots automatically assemble their orders. Drones then carry the order from the kitchen to the dining room. Minutes later, an employee checks in on the guest and asks if they are enjoying their meal. Kids play games on smart phones and see them projected onto an entertaining video wall. The restaurant is packed because part-time employees outside are wearing backpacks with digital screens advertising the day's specials.

John Miller addresses the 2017 Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit in London. 

That future is close to reality, according to John Miller, chairman and CEO of the Cali Group, a company that includes Miso Robotics and a chain of 50 fast casual burger joints called Caliburger. Miller presented his vision for an automated restaurant — powered by artificial intelligence and robotics — at the 2017 Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit in London. 

Caliburger has gained a lot of attention for its use of a kitchen robot called "Flippy," created by Miso Robotics. It performs many of the manual cooking tasks like flipping burgers on a grill and will eventually learn a variety of other tasks, including prepping and cutting vegetables, Miller said. 

Thanks to Miso Robotics, which has adapted technology from autonomous vehicles to kitchen robots, QSRs and fast casual restaurants will be much faster, more predictable and consistent and ultimately much safer, he said. Machines will even detect pathogens in real time.

"The kitchen can be entirely automated," Miller said. Humans will eventually be limited to interacting with guests in the dining area.

Calibuger is nearly there; the restaurants also feature self-ordering kiosks, a mobile app and a digital loyalty program

"We really think of ourselves as a technology company that happens to sell cheeseburgers," Miller said.

How it works

Miller and his team began by automating the grill and moving to other parts of the kitchen. They use existing robotic hardware in combination with AI-powered software. The system has been trained to recognize the different food products used and to learn from its mistakes as it performs kitchen tasks.

"We needed to focus on a solution that would integrate into existing kitchens," he said. "With that, we don’t have to think about taking out any of our existing equipment."

Handling problems

Although automated systems don't make as many errors as humans, there will be times when the systems fail, which is why Flippy is mobile. When it goes down, a human can quickly move it out of the way and take over, Miller said. When it's working, Flippy should be able to produce burgers twice as fast as people, reducing wait time, Miller said. 

Humans are still important in kitchens where Flippy is working, however. A person always works on the grill alongside the robot;  If the robot touches the human, it stops to maintain safety, Miller said.

What are the business models? 

There are different business models for Flippy, Miller said, but most operators want to pay up front, so they can put it on the balance sheet and depreciate it. There is also a charge per hour model – hire the robot and pay by the hour.

When asked about the cost, Miller did not want to give figures but said the cost of hardware and the software is declining. As volume goes up, cost will decline.

Over time, he said it will be much cheaper to employ robots than humans.

Gaming will add entertainment

The Cali Group has not only invested $5 million in Miso, it's also putting dollars toward gaming to make its restaurants more entertaining. It's raised about $30 million for a company called Super League Gaming, which tested a concept where kids play games on phones that are displayed on a screen on the wall. The technology will also give store owners the ability to put a display on the wall and monetize it. 

Another company Cali Group has invested in uses flexible wearable displays to promote restaurants. It has integrated flexible displays into backpacks and put cameras in the backpacks. The cameras allow them to track the number of people that see the restaurant's ads.

"For the first time in the offline world, an advertiser can buy ad space on a wearable display and measure how many people actually see the advertisement, and then pay accordingly based on the performance of the results," Miller said.

Kiosks already in use

The self-order kiosks are already operating in Caliburger restaurants that allow the customer to immediately see their loyalty points and their past ordering history. In the future, the payment processing will be done via facial recognition. The customer will never have to pull out a payment card. 

The system will also automatically access a customer’s Yelp reviews and alert the manager if a customer needs special attention.

"As creepy as it may sound, we believe it is inevitably the future of restaurants," Miller said. They call this project "Chocolate Chip," referring to offline cookies.

Concerns about automation

While many people worry that automation will eliminate jobs, Miller said new jobs will be created. There will be a need for engineers, management, installation and support of these systems.

Privacy is another concern people have about automation. Miller said that people first claimed Facebook would not work due to privacy concerns, but they eventually realized the benefits outweighed the concerns.



Topics: Customer Service / Experience, Operations Management, Systems / Technology

Elliot Maras

Elliot Maras is the editor of and

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