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Chef Robotics seeks to resolve labor shortage in US food prep market
We’ve all heard of robots coming to the fast-food chains. McDonald’s has been running its roboticized spot in Texas and Chick-fil-A has been testing robot servers. But a lot more automation in the restaurant business is taking place behind the scenes. Chef Robotics is among the startups bringing their food-processing robots inside commercial kitchens, and it recently raised new capital that will help it expand in the market.
Chef Robotics just celebrated raising $14.75 million in its new round that included both equity and debt financing. New investors joining in were MaC Venture Capital in Los Angeles, deep tech VC MFV Partners in Los Altos, CA, HCVC with offices in San Francisco and Paris, Interwoven Ventures based in Dallas, and Alumni Ventures. Existing investors were Construct Capital in Washington, DC, Kleiner Perkins in Menlo Park, Chicago-based Promus Ventures, Red & Blue Ventures focusing on Penn companies, and Humbition.
The company also welcomed new AI and robotics experts, including Blue River Robotics’ Jorge Heraud, Amar Hanspal, ex-CEO of Bright Machines and co-CEO of Autodesk, Tile founder Nick Evans, Carl Showalter previously with Fetch Robotics, and others.
Chef Robotics was launched in 2019 out of San Francisco by Rajat Bhageria – serial entrepreneur, book author, VC investor, and roboticist. To date, the company has raised $22.5 million, of which $4.25 million was in debt financing, according to TechCrunch. The new capital will enhance Chef’s robotics-as-a-service plan, as well as increase its team of engineers and technicians.
Even as robot startups shut their doors left and right over the past few years – these included pizza maker Zume, ready meals assembler Karakuri, and roboticized restaurant Creator, to name a few – Chef Robotics persisted, and now boasts steady growth.
In a LinkedIn post, Chef Robotics said it quadrupled its revenue from 2022 to 2023. The company’s robots are now deployed in five U.S. and Canadian cities, and it counts more than 1 million meals produced.
Unlike the food robots that didn’t quite make it, Chef Robotics adopted a different placement for its robots: the kitchens, and food assembly specifically. Rather than attempting to amuse the consumer with a robot server, the company chose the backend of the food development business and peddled practicality for the restaurant owner. On top of that, Chef aims to make the robots – which usually come with a hefty price tag – affordable with its RaaS plan.
The perks the technology promises are increased volume, flexible automation, cost savings, increased yield, and reduced food waste. Behind all that lies the power of ChefOS, the AI brain of the food processing robot that uses cameras to collect data and get training.
Meanwhile, there has been a stirring against the machine in food service and hospitality. Roman Alejo, a barista at the Sahara hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip and a member of the Culinary Union, was quoted by The Associated Press: “It is very scary and very eye-opening to see how humans can think of replacing other humans” after robots demonstrated a mastery of coffee-serving at the CES 2024 tech trade show in early January.
However, robot developers, and Chef Robotics among them, argue that rather than taking jobs away from humans, robots could solve the industry’s dire need of new personnel. Often, these are labor-intensive jobs with low wages, and the machine, they say, could no less than alleviate labor crisis.
Indeed, statistics showed that restaurants have been largely understaffed over the past few years, with more than 1 million jobs vacant in U.S. food prep and service. This has led restaurants to reduce open hours and double shifts for existing staff. In part, this shortage has been attributed to the prolonged Covid-19 closures: many low-paid food industry workers used the time to study and get certified for better-paying office seats.
“Today, one of the largest professions in the world, being an assembly line cook, is an extremely dull and dangerous job -- leading to massive turnover rates as people try unsuccessfully to find more fulfilling work. The result for food companies is being understaffed 20-50% as they try to meet their demand,” as Chef Robotics states on its website. “Our goal is to put a robot in every commercial kitchen in the world.”
Chef Robotics goes on to say that humans should have the chance to reach their full potential. Pursue creativity, innovativeness, leadership, and the arts, and leave the kitchens to robots!
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