by Jeff Engel
The Thai chicken bowl from Spyce Food’s new restaurant in downtown Boston wasn’t life-changing, but it’s one of the better meals I’ve had from a “fast casual” restaurant—and certainly the best I’ve had that was prepared mostly by robots.
OK, it’s the first meal I’ve eaten that was cooked by a robotic system, with help from humans. (See video below.) That novelty might attract a lot of curious and hungry customers to Spyce’s doors in the coming weeks. But if the restaurant is going to survive, it’ll come down to whether or not people like the food. Michael Farid, Spyce’s CEO and co-founder, understands this well.
Meal quality is the “most important thing,” he says in an interview this week at the restaurant, after I’ve taken my first few bites of the curry dish. “Hopefully [people will] come back a second time because they enjoyed their meal.”
Farid and his three co-founders—Kale Rogers, Luke Schlueter, and Brady Knight—started the company three years ago while studying mechanical engineering at MIT. As hungry students and water polo teammates, they felt like there weren’t enough healthy food options for a college student’s budget. They sought to solve the problem with technology and developed a “robotic kitchen” with the help of some grant money and at least $3.8 million in venture capital, according to SEC filings. (Farid declined to say how much money the company has raised.)
But the engineers weren’t culinary experts, so they recruited chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud, who invested in the company and serves as its culinary director. Boulud connected Spyce with chef Sam Benson, who had worked at one of Boulud’s restaurants (Café Boulud) and now serves as Spyce’s executive chef.
Here’s the dining experience they’ve concocted: Guests walk up to a kiosk with a touch screen and place their order, with a Spyce staff member on hand in case they have any questions or technical problems. Patrons can choose from a variety of vegetable-heavy dishes inspired by cuisine from places like India, Morocco, Thailand, and Latin America. Chicken, salmon, and eggs are the options for folks who want more protein—but there’s no beef, due to concerns over the sustainability of its production, the company says.
I ordered the Thai dish, which comes with roasted chicken, sweet potatoes and bok choy in a Massaman curry sauce, brown rice, fried garlic and shallots, and an herb salad—about 640 calories in all, Spyce says. I tacked on avocado crema and cilantro garnishes, as well as a kiwi limeade beverage.
After punching in my order, the automated system behind the counter got to work. Portions of the various ingredients, resting in refrigerated bins behind a glass wall, were dispensed through tubes, and then collected by a mobile, box-shaped machine called the “runner,” which slides back and forth above a line of rotating pots and delivers each food item into the correct one, Schlueter says. A metal plate on the side of the pot used electromagnetic induction to heat the contents to about 450 degrees Fahrenheit, he says, as the food tumbled around for two minutes like clothes in a dryer. Then, the pot automatically tipped forward and poured the food into a bowl. The system then turned the pot upside down to wash it with a blast of hot water before returning it to its upright position, ready to cook the next order.
At that point, humans re-entered the process. Autumn Lopez—one of the “garde manger” employees responsible for preparing the food—put the finishing touches on my dish, adding the salad, cilantro, and other garnishes. She put a top on the bowl and a sticker with my name on it, called out my name, and handed it to me with a smile.
The food was tasty—a mix of nutritious and flavorful ingredients that worked well together. The price wasn’t bad either, although it wasn’t much cheaper than other fast casual restaurants. All Spyce dishes have a base price of $7.50; my total came to $11.65 (before tax) because I added the avocado crema ($1.50), cilantro ($0.70), and kiwi limeade ($1.95). (Disclosure: Spyce covered the cost of the meals for journalists and other customers who got an early look at the restaurant before its official opening Thursday.)
By comparison, I could walk down the block to the nearest Chipotle restaurant and order a similar meal—a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole and a drink—for $12.63, including tax, according to the restaurant chain’s website.
Still, Spyce’s process was fast and simple, and it was fun watching the machines operate. Farid says the restaurant can churn out close to 200 meals per hour.
Of course, the impact of automation on jobs can’t be ignored. Farid acknowledges that Spyce’s restaurant will employ fewer people than a typical eatery. But they’ll be paid well, the company says. There will typically be four people operating the restaurant at a time, Farid says, plus the staff at a facility in Malden, MA, who season, chop, and package the food for delivery to the restaurant. Spyce’s corporate office employs nine people, he says.
“The goal was never to eliminate jobs,” Farid says. “The goal is to provide value to consumers. We do that by being as efficient as we can with costs.”
Spyce isn’t the only company developing more advanced machines for the food industry. Others include Moley Robotics, Miso Robotics, and Chowbotics. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s probably a safe bet that—just like the manufacturing and logistics industries—more restaurants will turn to automation to cut costs in the coming years.
Spyce, for its part, isn’t positioning itself as a robotics company. It doesn’t plan to sell its automated kitchen to other companies, Farid says; rather, if this restaurant is successful, it sounds like the startup might open additional locations.
“We want to turn [Spyce] into a successful restaurant brand,” Farid says. “We’re a restaurant company.”
One thing to watch is the menu, which Farid hinted could expand in the coming months. The system is currently limited to preparing bowl-based foods. It’s not capable of making a sandwich, for example, Farid says. Fairly simple breakfast foods are also still challenging.
“We cooked a really interesting pancake,” Farid says, when asked about Spyce’s most notable failed culinary experiment to date. “It looked a little strange.”