Sally, a salad-making robot, is programmed to create fresh, healthy and safe salads, based on each customer’s specific requests. Chowbotics, the company behind Sally, created a robot that would not only increase efficiency, but also safety, in restaurants. Sally is notable because of the proprietary technology developed to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. Her ingredients are kept sanitary, separate, and regularly replenished, reducing the risk for contamination. Her creators kept cleanliness in mind. Since bacteria can get stuck within the crevices of any equipment, this particular robot was designed to be easily maintained, cleaned and sanitized by human employees.  In fact, Sally recently received a food safety certification for passing the National Sanitation Foundation standard. 

There’s no denying that robotics in restaurants is a new trend. Restaurants nationwide are beginning to explore robots, artificial intelligence (AI), and other innovative technologies as a way to perform a variety of tasks more quickly, accurately, efficiently and safely. Robots are now able to measure ingredients, cook custom meals, prepare pizza dough, flip burgers, and even mix drinks.   

While it’s exciting to think of having a Jetsons-like experience whenever we dine out, robots like Sally are the exception – not the norm – in restaurants. Currently, robots are “testing the market,” in terms of reliability, feasibility and practicality in restaurant kitchens. But it’s likely that this trend will grow in the coming years.

Robots – and other tech tools – have potentially huge implications and benefits, including improving efficiencies,  boosting food safety protocols, and cutting costs. The last notwithstanding a huge initial cost of buying the robot, which could be $30,000 or more.

While industry insiders tout the benefits of robots replacing human workers, robots don’t need to be paid, they don’t call in sick, they can often perform faster, more consistently, and more accurately than their human counterparts, there will always be a need for human staff in any food business. 

Human employees are integral to customer service functions such as greeting guests and interacting with customers, as well as overseeing and managing food safety functions such as cleaning, sanitizing, monitoring, troubleshooting, inspecting, etc.

One of the biggest needs in the foodservice industry is to reduce, prevent and eliminate foodborne illnesses, and humans are working with tech tools to elevate food safety protocols and practices. For instance, there’s a crucial, ongoing need to clean and sanitize all equipment – robotic or otherwise. Clearly, cross-contamination is a huge concern, so a burger-flipping robot, for example, would need to be programmed to use different utensils when touching raw vs. cooked meat. Its human colleagues would need to monitor the robot to ensure that the equipment is working properly as well as being cleaned thoroughly and regularly.

People creating the robots must ensure that they’re easy to clean and sanitize, and employees utilizing them must confirm that they’re being cleaned at regular intervals. Humans must make sure that every nook and cranny is properly and regularly cleaned – from the equipment that touches the food to the tiny crevices in and on the machines, which could harbor potentially dangerous bacteria.

As robots grow in popularity – and become more affordable and accessible for food business owners – there will always be a need for trained human employees.

Case in point: Technology is available to automatically pour espresso shots and make specialty coffee drinks, yet the number of baristas working in coffee shops continues to rise. This seems counterintuitive, but proves the point that guests crave human interaction along with their daily dose of caffeine. And businesses need humans to monitor the equipment and oversee daily operations.

There are exciting applications around technology in the food industry, and we’re seeing just the very beginning of what these tech tools can do, in terms of reducing or eliminating foodborne illness, reducing other risks, and keeping guests safer. Future implications are exciting and limitless. Tech tools – robotics and artificial intelligence, data analytics, the Internet of Things, etc. – are already having tremendous, positive implications for food safety throughout every step of the supply chain – from the farmers that grow our food to the restaurants that prepare and serve it.

Restaurants, manufacturers, distributors and other food businesses have experienced serious foodborne illness outbreaks due to human errors – lack of handwashing, time-temperature abuse, cross-contamination and other factors. Now, we can utilize innovative tech solutions – along with humans to manage them – to stop, or at least lessen these serious food safety breaches.

Tech solutions provide automation – robots can be programmed to do the same things consistently every time, to avoid cross-contamination, cook foods to proper temperatures, and follow specific food safety protocols. But robots can’t operate in a vacuum. They need to work collaboratively with human employees who can observe, manage and troubleshoot, to maximize impact and minimize risks.

Recent food safety breaches have been numerous, widespread and serious. Technology is a huge part of the solution. While some tech solutions might be out of restaurants’ budget comfort zones – obviously not every business can afford an expensive robot for their kitchen – there are many user-friendly options at a variety of price points. In fact, tech solutions for restaurants are becoming more mainstream, accessible and affordable.  For instance, there are digital checklists that significantly improve restaurants’ internal safety inspections, innovative thermometers that are more effective and accurate in determining when foods are cooked to safe temperatures, as well as equipment sensors, which set off alarms and send notices to managers’ cell phones whenever there’s a break in protocol – such as the walk-in cooler rising above a set temperature.   

The key to food safety successes and the reduction of foodborne illnesses, recalls and other damaging incidents is to utilize tech tools in partnership with trained human employees. Restaurants that are investing in technology – and properly training their staff – are seeing amazing results, in terms of productivity, efficiency, and, most importantly, safety.

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