The Future

Bot appétit

The Future

Please welcome the humanity-free grain bowl lunch

The restaurant Spyce in Boston is offering a human-interaction-free fast casual dining experience.

I stepped into Spyce’s sleek, brightly-lit space just two days before its grand opening, not quite sure what to expect. The automated experience begins at an ordering kiosk, where I selected the Thai Bowl from the on-screen offerings. Other options included Beet (beets, carrots, sautéed kale, freekeh, tomato, cucumber salad, herb salad, sunflower seeds, and feta) and Chef Benson’s favorite, Chicken & Rice (roasted chicken, brown rice, sautéed kale, tomato, cucumber salad, pomegranate seeds, and white sauce). Any order can also be customized to suit vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, or gluten-free diets.

After adding a radish garnish, I watched as a hopper—which pulls ingredients from refrigerated bins that are stocked at the beginning of each shift—zoomed on a mechanical track over the top of a row of seven nonstick, forged-iron woks that loomed high above the counter. The hopper fetched and dumped the ingredients I requested into a wok one by one. The wok then began to spin on an induction panel, tossing and tumbling and heating the (precooked) components of my meal. After about three minutes, the wok tipped its contents into a disposable bowl, with a handful of rice-grain casualties missing the mark. Then it scrubbed itself down with built-in hot-water jet, ready to receive the next order. I was presented with my very own power bowl, perfect doses of nutrients and flavors optimized for eating quickly and without complaint.

Spyce, a fast-casual restaurant in Boston with the world’s first completely robotic kitchen, opened on May 3rd. The idea began as the brainchild of Michael Farid, Kale Rogers, Brady Knight, and Luke Schlueter, four MIT students who created the robot as part of the school’s Lemelson-MIT competition. The team took the 2016 undergraduate prize in the food division, briefly ran the operation out of one of the school’s dining halls, and launched a pilot program at a coworking space.

For this latest incarnation, Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud stepped in to advise on the culinary offerings, design, layout, and customer experience. Boulud owns 19 other restaurants, including Café Boulud in New York, where he met former Executive Chef Sam Benson. After tapping Benson to lend his skills to Spyce, the two helped the team build recipes for the eatery’s menu of seven grain bowls, which sell for $7.50 each.  

The team hopes consumers eschew a handmade meal and an arguably more textured experience for a taste of technology.

Despite its complex technology, Spyce’s aim is simple: to disrupt the industry by offering a quick and tasty meal while retaining a low price point. Minimal staff means low overhead, allowing this dream to become a reality. The team wants to expand the concept, but is focused on building a loyal fan base first, hoping consumers eschew a handmade meal and an arguably more textured experience for a taste of technology. Humanity has already been mostly removed in a climate where people are jostling for a lunch that is by turns healthy, somewhat Instagrammably aesthetic, just tasty enough, and most importantly, able to be eaten quickly and without a fuss, at a desk and over spreadsheets if needed. Removing it on the other side of the sneeze guard will only serve to optimize the automation of lunch still further.

While Spyce is the first restaurant of its kind, it’s not the first to test out robots on the line. Last year, a completely robotic coffee shop called Cafe X opened in San Francisco, trading real, live baristas for a mechanized arm that slings fairly complicated espresso drinks (and won’t roll its eyes at you). Similarly, California’s Miso Robotics debuted a robotic kitchen assistant in March named Flippy, who lends a literal hand to staff by grilling burger patties to perfection and removing them from the grill. After he proved to be too fast for humans at Pasadena’s CaliBurger restaurant, Flippy was let go after just two days. Zume, a pizza chain also headquartered in California, utilizes robots to press pizza dough in less than 10 seconds, and employs automated ovens to bake each pie en route to its delivery destination.

The robo-restaurant invasion is not without its critics: in a climate of poorly-compensated and under-appreciated food service employees, removing people from the equation could be detrimental not only to the dining experience, but to those who make their livings in the industry. In the case of the partially-robotic San Francisco cafe Eatsa, that shift seems to be underway already. According to The Atlantic, while the restaurant hired two greeters at each outpost upon its opening, customers seemed content to figure things out on their own, and the restaurant made the decision to employ one greeter per location as a result. Last year, the CEO of Yum Brands proclaimed that within a decade, humans may be all but replaced by AI and automation in restaurants, citing the recent introduction of robotic greeters at Pizza Huts in Shanghai. Andy Puzder, former CEO of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, even expressed interest in adopting a completely robotic fast food experience back in 2016, in the face of rising labor costs. Others, like Teófilo Reyes ofthe Restaurant Opportunity Center, believe that technology will merely change the nature of human jobs, not reduce the quantity of them.

At Spyce, Boulud and company seem keenly aware of these concerns, softening the transition with a compromise that appears partially designed to quell any naysayers. That garnish I selected was administered not by the metal arms and pincers of a robot, but by a staff member reminiscent of a fine dining garde manger, who also added a lid and a personalized label. (Likewise, the components scooped and assembled by the automated parts of the restaurant are pre-prepped by humans.)

The concept is largely designed to be grab-and-go, but I stuck around, snagging a seat and basking in the glory of technology. The bowl was pretty damn good, especially since I’m not a huge fan of grain bowls made by anyone. The chicken, sweet potatoes, bok choy, garlic, shallots, and herb salad all combined perfectly, with a curry sauce bringing the whole thing home in a unique way. I wondered if pickier diners might take issue with the lack of control over the portioning of each ingredient. Unlike a carbon-based Chipotle employee, a robot can’t take pity on your cries for just a little more salsa.