PASADENA, Calif. — Restaurant operator Cali Group has announced that it is expanding its use of certain technologies in an effort to minimize employee and customer exposure to COVID-19. These technologies include kitchen automation from Miso Robotics Inc., entry-screening systems, and contactless ordering and payment. It will demonstrate them at a CaliBurger site that reopens here today.
Several U.S. states, including California, have ordered closures of “nonessential” businesses to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. In many cases, restaurants that offer takeout and delivery services have been allowed to stay open. However, the risk of infection remains.
Cali Group runs CaliBurger and is an investor in multiple companies. “We’re taking the technologies across all the companies in our portfolio and putting them in our Pasadena restaurant to see the best way to deal with the current situation,” said John Miller, chairman of Cali Group. “We’re the first restaurant to do this.”
Miso Robotics adds automation
Miso‘s Flippy robot uses proprietary machine learning and robotics control software to prepare fried and grilled foods. It has served more than 12,000 hamburgers to date, and the company’s goal is to improve consistency, productivity, and sanitation while improving the dining experience.
“Miso Robotics, which was incubated at Cali Burger, is trying to find the best way to address the problem from a food-safety standpoint,” said Buck Jordan, CEO of Miso Robotics. “Because the virus is persistent and sticks to objects, it’s better to have minimal to no humans in the loop to keep restaurants safe.”
“By automating tasks such as frying and grilling, Flippy can give operators and consumers confidence that their food is being prepared in a more sterile environment,” he stated. “We’ve seen an influx of customer demand for fully autonomous food preparation. There are massive labor-supply problems and now a nationwide health issue.”
“We’re working to further automate the process, with a frozen food hopper coming online at a CaliBurger store,” Jordan told The Robot Report. “”We’ll be experimenting with more fully autonomous food concepts.”
Miso Robotics is in talks with major fast-food chains. “Brands are hyper-focused on safety, and I see us partnering with national brands in the third or fourth quarter,” said Jordan.
The company recently announced a new prototype that puts Flippy on a rail for commercial kitchens. After raising seed funding in 2016 and Series C funding last fall, Miso Robotics is preparing a crowdfunding campaign.
CaliBurger site reopens with facial recognition, thermal sensors
CaliBurger has about 30 restaurants nationwide, including the fresh-food franchise in Pasadena, but its shops in Seattle have been shut down. “However, our shop in Fort Meyers, Fla., has been doing a lot of deliveries,” Miller noted.
He said he expects the technologies demonstrated at the renovated CaliBurger to eventually spread to all of its locations, as well as other types of businesses.
“We’re putting Android door-entry devices with stereoscopic cameras and thermal sensors at the door,” explained Miller. “If someone has a fever, the store won’t admit them. The system is accurate to 0.3 degrees. Remote temperature detection has been widely deployed in Asia for tracking and controlling the spread of the virus.”
What happens if a customer or delivery driver arriving at the restaurant has a fever? “We’ll refund the customer, ask the driver to go home and get some rest, and let DoorDash know to send a different driver,” Miller replied. “We don’t yet have an automated process for that.”
“On the payment side, when people come to pick up their food and pay, we’ll use face pay only with PopID, which is from another Cali Group portfolio company,” he said. “There’s no credit cards or cash passing back and forth with the guest.”
Current CaliBurger facial payment kiosks still use touchscreens, but new terminals and the PopPay app will eliminate any need for contact, said Miller. The facial recognition system complies with state privacy laws, he added.
“The goal is to let any facility screen at the door, and we expect to sell the systems widely to offices, retail stores, and even homes,” Miller said. “We’ve also had interest from some big building operators, and we expect to sell it widely in the market in the next few weeks.”
The bigger picture
As retailers struggle with closures and health concerns during the novel coronavirus pandemic, automation can not only help them be productive amid staff shortages, but it can also reassure customers and gather useful data (with safeguards for security and privacy).
“With technologies such as machine vision, if these devices get widely deployed, they could collect data about hot spots, not just for coronavirus, but also for future disease outbreaks,” Miller said. “While it can be mandated in China, it needs to be adopted here.”