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Drone Baristas, Smart Tables, and More from the Restaurant of Tomorrow


Allison Meier | March 27, 2018
One hundred years from now, will human beings be part of the restaurant industry at all?

In San Francisco, robotic baristas are serving coffee ordered through a smartphone app, while in Singapore, drone waiters are filling the restaurant workforce gap. With more and more automation and digital interaction in the food industry, it’s possible to imagine a restaurant 50 years from now that is run entirely without human intervention, where robots make and serve meals with machine-level precision, and each diner’s preferences are predicted based on social sharing (and might even be designed to spark jealousy when they appear later on social feeds). However, it’s probable that the most radical advancements will take place behind the scenes, leaving the technological spectacles to be discovered by those who seek them out.

Image courtesy of Cafe X

From Industrial Canning to Burger-Flipping Robots

Rebecca Chesney, research director of the Food Futures Lab at the Institute for the Future in California, thinks that by looking to the past 50 years, we can better predict the greatest changes coming in the next few decades. “Industrialization really transformed our food system. The ability to can foods to make them shelf-stable, and the cold supply chain — those things all drastically transformed how we eat,” she said. “And so I think in the longer term where we’re likely to see impacts of automation and robotics is going to be more in the logistics and the distribution of food, maybe the formulations of food.”

In fact, automation is already embedded in the restaurant industry today, particularly in fast-casual establishments: one national chain uses touch-screen kiosks for ordering, and another was first launched as a fully automated restaurant in the dining hall of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chesney recalled how when she worked at a large chain coffee shop, the plastic cups had lines showing exactly how far to fill them with ice, milk, and pumps of flavor. “There are already a lot of these cues that have been designed into some of these processes,” she said. “One thing that we’re likely to see [in the future] is, in places like that where they are optimizing for efficiency and speed, there might be some level of automation and robotics.”

Makr Shakr robot bartending system

These innovations will have to take into consideration the existing environment of different restaurants and their needs. A burger-flipping robot named (appropriately) Flippy was retired after just one day of working at a fast-food joint in Pasedena because Flippy’s human coworkers couldn’t keep up with the rate of its burger production, meaning that the addition in automation would have required more human employees to facilitate. And back in 2016, the robotic waiters at two restaurants in Guangzhou, China, were fired after regularly breaking down and being unable to carry soup without sloshing it. Other areas have been more successful, like the introduction of app-ordering for fast food, and even drone pizza delivery, which one chain began offering in 2016. While these new methods often target consumers, a major issue will be redefining the role of restaurant workers and figuring out how their jobs will survive and evolve. A 2017 study estimated that by 2030, between 400 and 800 million jobs could be eliminated due to artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.

Personalized Automation and the Smartest Tables

“The fast casual and fast food market will have to get to automation,” affirmed Jeremy Julian, who co-hosts the Restaurant Technology Guys podcast with Ryan Williams. The duo recently had an episode all about the future, which covered everything from being able to ask for your check with voice-recognition AI to conversing with a restaurant bot about order recommendations. “Clients ordering for themselves with their own mobile device or a kiosk — there is very little value in having someone at a counter take an order,” Julian added. “Most customers will want to have their own control of the experience.”

For even greater consumer control, smart tables are being introduced that can turn into a huge iPad for ordering or playing games on — the 21st-century version of crayons and butcher’s paper. At Inamo in London, customers can use interactive projections on their tables to watch a live-cam of the chef or sketch digital “graffiti” on its surface.

Image courtesy of Inamo

Sensory-Oriented Fine Dining

Nevertheless, in fine dining, people may continue to want human interaction as part of the experience, even as, behind the scenes, things get more and more automated. “On the kitchen side, I do expect that technology and automation will increase,” Julian said. “I expect the manager’s purchasing decisions get driven from data. The cooking process will be more automated in all avenues — fine dining, casual dining, and fast food. The continued innovation on that side will grow, [as will] better cooking methods and food safety methodologies.”

For adventurous souls, there are already many options for experimental dining utilizing new technology, many of which are even more sensory-oriented than the Robot Restaurant in Tokyo, which does gangbusters with its “Bot Cabaret.” One of these is Shanghai’s Ultraviolet, which offers communal fine dining with each dish complemented by four walls of video projections, dispersed scents, and a meticulously curated playlist. In an article for the Telegraph, John O’Ceallaigh described eating oysters and caviar there to the sounds of seagulls and the smell of the salty ocean, and detecting fresh-cut grass and birdsongs while sampling a picnic-style spread of fish and rice. Artists have pushed these possibilities further, such as the installation GhostFood by Miriam Simun and Miriam Songster, which involves wearable devices issuing synthetic smells right into the nostrils to simulate the taste of food that could be lost to climate change. Meanwhile, Project Nourished is exploring virtual reality and 3-D-printed food to create just the sensation of eating, which could be a potential aid for weight loss, allergy management, and even remote dining for astronauts.

Robot Restaurant's "Bot Cabaret" (image courtesy of Robot Restaurant)

What the Future of Dining Really Holds

“A lot of times people ask me, ‘Is everyone going to be eating lab-grown meat [in the future]?’ or ‘Is everyone going to be having food delivered to their house?’,” Chesney said. “I always say no. I mean, not everyone eats meat today, not everyone shops the same way today. It’s important to think about the different values or the different types of goals that people have when it comes to food, because food can be about nourishment, it can be about comfort, and it can be about celebration.”

Considering that in 50 years it will be millennials populating retirement communities — or uploading their consciousnesses to the cloud — perhaps current food trends like farm-to-table and sustainability will be harmonized with new automation in the next half century. It may be possible to relive pre-stroke or chemotherapy tastes through virtual reality, or just to order your fare more conveniently using voice recognition or eye-tracking glasses. Whatever your dream of future dining looks like, it’s clear that more automation and AI will be present during many — if not all — parts of the experience.

For more about the fantastic future of dining, click here

For a glimpse of the food tech of tomorrow, go here.

For a taste of what we’ll be drinking in 50 years, head here.

For the fabulous fine-dining future of 3D-printed food, try here.

To discover more distinctive culture, try Heritage | Fernet-Branca.

Allison Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer focused on history and visual culture. She was previously senior editor at Atlas Obscura and more recently a staff writer at Hyperallergic. She moonlights as a cemetery tour guide.


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