Comstock's magazine 1218 - December 2018 - Page 59

“About 85 percent of our members are independents ... If I tell them all the great things the big chains are doing with automation, they’re going to say. ‘That’s nice, but I can’t afford that.’” — Sharokina Shams, vice president of public affairs, California Restaurant Association AT THE FOREFRONT In San Francisco, startup gourmet burger joint Creator uses a massive robot to create burgers filled with hormone-free chuck and brisket formed into a patty designed for the ultimate mouthfeel. But Creator also has plenty of human workers, and company founder and CEO Alex Vardakostas says that using the bot allows him to pay them $16 an hour. Elsewhere in San Francisco, the robotic barista at Cafe X can make you anything from a basic espresso to a perfect flat white or a nitro cold brew. But every Cafe X also has at least one human on duty at all times to help customers with their orders, keep things tidy and ensure the robot never runs out of artisanal beans. “We are elevating the role of the traditional barista, al- lowing them to focus on the human aspect of the job, which most of them really enjoy,” says Cynthia Yeung, chief oper- ating officer at Cafe X. “The idea is to let the robots do what robots are good at, things that require a high level of preci- sion, and have humans do the part of the job that humans are best at.” Shams, of the California Restaurant Association, says that these operations are pioneering more than just a new way to make food. “More and more we’re seeing operations created and run by people who are primarily tech entrepreneurs like ... Cafe X, who choose to operate in the food service space — not the traditional culinary people who take the step of opening a restaurant to showcase those skills,” she says. But novelty may not equate to quality. And is a city like Sacramento, that prides itself on being on the leading edge of the farm-to-fork movement, the kind of market that would embrace the Cafe X robotic barista the way San Francisco has? Mayugba thinks the success of something in a tech-heavy place like San Francisco doesn’t mean much for how it would be received in other locales. “If something works in San Francisco, we actually red flag it because that’s utopia right now,” says Mayugba. “San Fran- cisco and Boston and San Jose are places where true innova- tion happens, but to grow those ideas they need to work in Anywhere, USA. You want something to work in Sacramento because it is Anywhere, USA.” Cost is also a major hurdle. Yeung declined to confirm the cost of Cafe X’s robotic baristas, but it has been widely reported that each runs at least $25,000. The “Flippy” cranks out hun- dreds of perfectly grilled patties a day for the hamburger chain CaliBurger, aided by human workers who lay out the patties and put the burgers together — and is reported to cost between $60,000 and $100,000. Shams says in an industry where profit margins often fall in the 3-5 percent range, that is cost prohib- itive for most small operations. “About 85 percent of our members are independents, either as franchisees or as truly independent mom-and-pop opera- tions,” Shams says. “If I tell them all the great things the big chains are doing with automation, they’re going to say. ‘That’s nice, but I can’t afford that.’” THE HUMAN TOUCH At the 2018 State of Sacramento County luncheon this past No- vember, keynote speaker Larry Kosmont — CEO of Kosmont Companies and an expert on economic development — spoke about the impact of automation on the workforce and efforts to court the U.S. millennial consumer, which at 80 million strong represents $600 billion in buying power. He said the jobs at risk are physical ones in predictable environments; for example, fast-food workers. And while many jobs will be replaced by au- tomation, this shift will also create new jobs. A city like San Francisco may be on the cutting edge of automation, but elsewhere, where the appeal of a robotic chef may be lost on consumers, ordering food from a delivery app December 2018 | comstocksmag.com 59