A new player is throwing its hat into the robotic kitchen arena as the industry’s demand for workplace efficiency grows.
Chicago-based Nala Robotics is planning to open its first Nala restaurant — a 6,000-square-foot space in the Mall of India in Naperville, Ill. — in April, followed by a second, 3,000-square-foot location in May in Elgin, Ill. A third site is planned for Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood in June, followed by one per month for the rest of the year.
The company is not yet releasing many details about how the system will work, other than that it will use artificial intelligence, machine learning and multiple robotic arms to combine pre-prepped ingredients and cook them in modified restaurant kitchens.
Plans call for the first restaurant to offer about 100 dishes, including about 10 menu items each from 10 different cuisine types, said Ajay Sunkara, president and co-founder of Nala Robotics.
The website lists Thai, Indian, Chinese, Italian, Korean, Malaysian, Cajun and Mexican among the restaurant’s capabilities, along with pizza, burgers, fried chicken and salads.
“The possibilities are unlimited,” said Sunkara. “As long as you can put the recipe into the database … you can cook whatever you want.”
Although robotics will handle the actual cooking of the ingredients — which will be delivered to the restaurant fully sliced, diced, and otherwise prepared for cooking by suppliers — humans will oversee the operation and will also package the dishes for takeout and delivery once they are prepared by the robotic arms, he said. Plans call for robotics to eventually perform the packaging function as well.
Nala will have its own app for ordering, and will partner with third-party firms for delivery.
Sunkara and his partner, Vijay Kodali, co-founder and chief technology officer, have been working on the project for three years, he said, and have been testing the robotic system in a lab. They have recruited Michael Tsonton, a former executive chef at Levy Restaurants, as director of culinary operations, research and development.
Plans call for the first incarnation of Nala to feature recipes from social media stars, although the company has not yet disclosed the identities of those who will be contributing dishes to the menu.
“If there is a burger joint in New York that has a great following and wants to expand, we can upload that recipe in Naperville, and customers will get the exact same burger,” said Sunkara.
The Nala Robotics kitchens will operate 24/7, preparing pre-packaged foods for subscription meal plans and for grab-and-go retail offerings when they are not preparing items to order for takeout and delivery, he said. Each location will employ abut 20 people.
Sunkara, a co-founder of Best Brains Learning Centers, a global chain of franchised outposts that offer tutoring and supplementary education for children, said Nala plans to expand the robotic kitchens through franchising.
The effort to introduce robotics into restaurant kitchens and other foodservice applications has been gaining traction in the industry, and some see it as a potential solution to combatting rising labor costs and reducing turnover.
Among the recent initiatives in this area was the November reopening of Spyce, a robotic kitchen in Boston offering bowls and salads prepared on an automated assembly line. The concept had been closed for a year to revamp the menu and operations.
Columbus, Ohio-based White Castle launched a test this past fall of the Flippy Robot On A Rail, or ROAR, technology from Miso Robotics, which has also deployed its robotics in its sister CaliBurger chain and elsewhere.
Jamie Richardson, vice president of marketing and public relations at White Castle, said the test has gone well so far.
“We are getting great learning, and team members have welcomed their latest colleague to be part of the Castle team,” he said. “Our intent from the beginning has been to see how to invest in technology that makes working at the Castle even cooler and more fun, and we’re off to a good start.”
Richardson said the chain has plans to expand the test later this year, although it’s not ready to share specific details.
The technology has been a “win-win-win,” he said, citing advantages for the company, workers and customers.
“It’s great for our learning on how to invest in technology to optimize learning and future operations,” said Richardson. “It’s a tremendous time of creativity, and amazing for our teams to be a part of building tomorrow today.”