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This robotic kitchen startup is coming for Sweetgreen’s lunch

Spyce, which is reopening its Boston-area location today after technological problems, offers contactless cooking—which could help it thrive during the pandemic.

This robotic kitchen startup is coming for Sweetgreen’s lunch
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The first thing you do at Boston fast-casual eatery Spyce is line up at a digital kiosk. There, you select a salad or bowl like The Bungalow, a brown basmati rice bowl with coconut curry sauce, brussels sprouts, carrots, and chili lime cashews. If that doesn’t appeal, you can also order take-out online.

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So far, so Sweetgreen.

But then things get interesting. While several pairs of hands might touch an order from Sweetgreen or Just Salad on an assembly line, often the first person at Spyce who touches your food is you.

That’s because all of Spyce’s food is cooked using robots in a setup that Spyce calls the “Infinite Kitchen.” A bowl travels along a conveyor belt as ingredients cooked at different temperatures are dropped in through a series of funnels. Super-heated steamers heat grains that can be used as a base, while ingredients like proteins are seared on hot planchas until they are caramelized and dropped in.

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Spyce cofounder and co-CEO Michael Farid, who came up with the concept with three friends while studying at MIT, saw a lot of benefits to creating an automated kitchen when he first opened the restaurant in 2018 after building the prototype for two years. But in 2019, facing problems with the technology, he took the drastic decision to close Spyce’s first outpost in an effort to fix the system. The new Infinite Kitchen which debuts today has been completely redesigned.

Spyce cofounders, from left: Brady Knight, Michael Farid, Luke Schlueter, and Kale Rogers [Photo: courtesy of Spyce]
As Spyce reopens today with a revamped automated kitchen, the system’s touchless aspect has new appeal. With a global pandemic ongoing, a meal cooked with a robotic system might be just enough of a differentiator to help Spyce thrive in an era that has decimated the restaurant industry.

Less space, but room for improvement

In 2018, Spyce raised a Series A round from investors including Maveron and Khosla Ventures as well celebrity chefs Thomas Keller, Jérôme Bocuse, and Daniel Boulud. The plan was to expand along the East Coast, Farid told Eater: Because fewer workers are needed in the kitchen, Spyce takes up less real estate than a traditional food establishment (though the system isn’t entirely robotic—humans still prep all the ingredients by hand).

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But even the best-laid plans can go awry. It turned out the technology had some problems that Spyce had to address before it could grow. Customers were unhappy with the limited customization that the Infinite Kitchen offered, and wait times grew to nearly 15 minutes as the system struggled to keep up with increased demand. Last November, Farid closed the kitchen to redesign the entire system.

As it reopens for business today, a few things have changed. First, the company added more offerings to the limited menu, leaning into one of the things that customers loved: personalizing their food. “We only had a couple of options, like vegan and gluten free. Customers loved it because it turns out most of them were vegan or gluten free,” Farid says. “But some asked for a lighter base, like salad instead of grains, and we didn’t have the capacity to do that.” Now, customers will be able to customize their order even more to suit their diets.

However, customization takes time—even for a robot. Farid says the old system was only able to make 120 bowls per hour, pushing the average wait time up to 15 minutes, frustrating office workers stepping out for a quick lunch break pre-pandemic. “It’s not like we could offer office deliveries because we couldn’t make that volume [of food]. We’re not in the sit-down restaurant business where we’re in the business of serving you awesome food really quickly,” he says. Now, the Infinite Kitchen has been tweaked to be more efficient, moving bowls down the line and dispensing ingredients far faster.

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The pandemic pivot

Farid says the pandemic has strengthened Spyce’s commitment to being a kitchen rather than a restaurant, a smart business decision at a time when restaurants are seating customers at limited capacity and customers are wary of cramming into smaller spaces. “We do pickup and delivery, and we want to offer catering as well, but we’re not a sit-down restaurant,” he says.

But that doesn’t mean he wants restaurant employees to be out of work. The company has built its own delivery system instead of relying on third-party apps like Uber Eats. Spyce has hired a team of drivers to deliver food on zero-emission electric mopeds and created separate compartments in their carrier bags to keep cool and warm ingredients at the right temperatures. Spyce may have fewer employees in the kitchen, but makes up for it with its number of delivery employees, who will start delivering Spyce bowls in the Boston area today.

[Photo: courtesy of Spyce]
And while most delivery workers for the likes of Doordash and Uber are contractors, Farid wanted his drivers to be part of the company, giving them benefits and paying them more. “Because we can staff the team more lean, we can pay the few employees we have in the kitchen above market, and hire a team of drivers as W2 employees,” he says.

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Spyce is one of many experiments to bring automation to the food industry. Pasadena chain CaliBurger uses a robot called Flippy to make more than 300 burgers an hour. At San Francisco’s Cafe X, the barista is a bot. Some notable launches have failed: Earlier this year, Softbank-backed robotic pizza-maker Zume laid off half its staff and stopped making pizzas, focusing instead on manufacturing food packaging.

Given Spyce’s history, it’s too early to wager that its automated conveyer-belt kitchen will take the restaurant industry by storm. After all, many office workers were accustomed to standing in line at a Sweetgreen or Just Salad pre-pandemic. But when human interaction carries more risk, Spyce’s contactless kitchen might be worth ordering from.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to accurately explain how the Infinite Kitchen works.