As employees are becoming harder to find, fast casual restaurants have been investing in more automation. According to one estimate, the global food technology market is estimated to reach $342 billion by 2027, and there are ample signs that fast food, in particular, is embracing automation.
The latest example? Panda Express has rolled out a robotic wok, dubbed the Panda Auto Wok (PAW). The move comes on the heels of fast-casual restaurants like White Castle, Chipotle, and Jack in the Box adopting robotic systems for the back of the house cooking. Is this the end of the fast food worker? Do consumers even care in a pandemic-influenced market where convenience and touchless delivery reign supreme?
I connected with Stanley Liu, VP of Operation Services, to talk about tofu, changing priorities in the food business and robots. The bottom line is that the restaurant industry is hyper-competitive, and efficiency is the only way to survive.
“Panda Express has used a dynamic and labor-intensive operational process in order to provide our guests with an exceptional dining experience,” explains Liu. “Now, we are using automation to simplify our associates’ operations process while ensuring that our food is made with the best quality and to provide the best guest experience. The new Panda Auto Wok (PAW) ensures consistent food quality and food temperature while also cutting down the average cooking time by 25%, decreasing the waiting time for guests to receive their food. Additionally, this new PAW technology allows anyone to be a wok-master and helps reduce repeated motion-based injury for our associates. Overall, this provides an opportunity for the fast-casual restaurant industry to create new operation processes that are less physically demanding, support better retention, and elevate operational efficiency.”
The interesting thing about Panda’s approach here is that the technology was developed internally, a departure from chains purchasing automation as-a-service from purveyors like Miso Robotics. The company’s robotic work, in fact, has been in development since 2015.
“Throughout the development process, we have made many small modifications and created four various prototypes as we have continued testing and improving its functionality and durability. After undergoing a lengthy testing and certification process, Panda has begun rolling out this new technology. Currently, we have 120 units in our system and plan to produce 240 more units by the end of June.”
The company started by analyzing the traditional wok cooking style from a technical standpoint, isolation metrics such as mixing motion, speed, and flame output to simulate traditional Chinese cooking. The team next focused on the repetitive motions and other physical processes that contribute to burnout. When using a standard wok, Panda associates would need to constantly stir and move the ingredients around with the turner and ladle as well as physically handling a heavy wok. Using PAW, cooks add ingredients when prompted by the work, which does the rest of the work.
Panda’s Operations Innovation and Engineering Team is in early stages of exploring other automated equipment, underlining the expanding role automation is playing in the sector.
“One project is a new iteration of the PAW and other automated cooking equipment for specific dishes,” says Liu. “We are also exploring other aspects in the kitchen to see where automation can be utilized, such as frying and vegetable dispensing. The overall goal is to make our associates’ jobs easier and freeing up their time to focus on other aspects of the kitchen and guest service while maintaining consistency and quality in our dishes.”
For now, the robots are making a collaborative entry into the kitchen, but as robotic kiosks and dexterous chefs begin to proliferate, the writing seems to be on the wall for fast food workers.