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Amidst labor shortages, robots are stepping in to prepare French fries

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In White Castle southeast of Chicago, over the former year, the 100-year-old rapid-food seller has hosted an extraordinary and extraordinarily firm-working employee: a robotic cook.

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Flippy, as the robot is known, isn’t a gimmick, says Jimmy Richardson, White Castle’s vice president. It operates 23 hours a day (one hour is reserved for cleaning) and has been operating almost continuously for the former year, operating the frying station at White Castle No. 42 in Merrillville, Indiana. An industrial robot arm encased in a white grease-resistant fabric cover slides along a ceiling-mounted rail, raising and lowering each basket when ready, resistant to splashes and spills. White Castle is pleased that Flippy Performance, in partnership with its maker, Miso Robotics, the chain plans to roll out an improved version, Flippy 2.0, to 10 more restaurants across the country.

There were more than 1.3 million job openings in restaurants and hotels as of the end of May, double the number a year ago, according to the Labor Department. For many restaurants, surviving the current employment crisis and resulting wage inflation means using self-service ordering kiosks and other tech tools to automate some customer-facing jobs and simplify things like online ordering. But entrepreneurs and industry executives are also trying to tackle a larger and more complicated problem: automating food production itself.

Commercial kitchens, especially those in rapid food restaurants, have lengthy used automation in one form or another, both on site and in preparing food prior it reaches the restaurant. The industry has benefited for decades from innovations ranging from microwave ovens to off-the-shelf automobiles.

But what’s happening now is distinct, says Michael Schaefer, senior analyst for food and beverage development at Euromonitor, a company that analyzes consumer trends. In the age of the pandemic, the combination of scanty labor, an unprecedented increase in demand for takeout and delivery, and minimal margins that allow for delivery, is forcing restaurateurs to look at technology they may have turned away from prior, he says.


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