Restaurant robots are really happening

Photo illustration by Nico Heins

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I find myself writing a lot about robots these days.

Take today, for example. Kiwibot, the maker of autonomous delivery robots, raised $7.5 million. It plans to bring the rovers to 50 college campuses this year through a partnership with major non-commercial operator Sodexo.

Meanwhile, in my inbox are news that Checkers is adding AI drive-thru ordering to more restaurants, and an embargoed story about a major federal agency using robotic chefs.

Last week, I wrote about White Castle’s plans to add the Flippy fryer robot to 100 more restaurants, and DoorDash’s strategy for its robotics division, and how robotic servers present themselves in all sorts of of operations, including large chains like Chili’s.

My conclusion: we are no longer in the part of the adoption curve where we speculate on what kind of impact bots might have. We are at the part where we see evidence of an impact.

This proof, at present, is mostly in the form of dollars. White Castle and Checkers are making larger investments after liking what they saw in testing. Sodexo’s contract with Kiwibot is worth $20 million. Sweetgreen bought an entire robotic restaurant to use its technology. This is not speculative venture capital money, but real commitments from operators to use the products at scale.

This does not mean that the robots have overcome all the obstacles. a tweet going around last week, for example, showed a traffic jam of delivery robots resulting from a scooter blocking their path. There are still variables to smooth. But the overall progress is becoming hard to ignore.

Tattle raised $5.5 million. The company helps restaurants collect customer feedback and identify areas for improvement. The Series A was led by Contour Ventures and included investments from celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, former Shake Shack CFO Jeff Uttz and executives from brands such as Chipotle and Pokeworks.

Tattle said it will use the funding to add more integrations and expand resources for the fast-growing shadow kitchen and virtual brand space. He works with 150 clients, including MOD Pizza, Bareburger, Farmer Boys and more.

Kitchen United has opened its second grocery store location. The last ghost kitchen is in a Kroger store in Houston and is home to 10 restaurant brands, including Dog Haus, Buca di Beppo, Fuddruckers and Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop. Customers can order pickup and delivery of any combination of brands using on-site kiosks or the Kitchen United website or app. The location is part of a partnership with Kroger that will bring Kitchen United to multiple stores. The first opened at Los Angeles Ralphs in January.

KU KrogerKitchen United’s new Kroger location is part of a multi-unit deal with the grocery giant. / Photography courtesy of Kitchen United

Grubhub partners with Indeed to help restaurants hire. The delivery company is offering new restaurant partners in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Boston $300 to spend on a sponsored posting on the jobs website. Existing restaurants that sign up for Grubhub Direct, the company’s website building service, will also receive a credit.

Hiring is one of the biggest challenges for independent restaurants right now, and the industry is about 1 million short of workers compared to before the pandemic.

DoorDash has added Google Ordering to its Storefront online ordering platform. Restaurants using Storefront can now start automatically accepting orders placed through the search engine or Google Maps. The delivery company said the integration can help restaurants drive additional orders.

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