My Compliments to the Chef, Er, Robot

My Compliments to the Chef, Er, Robot

Automated machines take over New York kitchens

By Charles Passy July 20, 2019 10:00 am ET

Robots are making their way into New York City’s restaurants.

A growing number of dining spots throughout town are using machines to prepare all manner of food and drink, in many cases replacing the employees who would normally handle the task. Think gizmos that can do everything from slice a sushi roll into eight uniform pieces to mix the perfect happy-hour cocktail.

And when no machine is available for the job, some restaurateurs find an automated solution of their own design. Nat Loganathan, owner of the newly opened Dalup Modern Indian, a fast-casual restaurant in Chelsea, used his engineering and computer background to build a device that makes dosa, the crepe-style item popular in Indian cuisine.

Mr. Loganathan fashioned the machine in his Connecticut garage from an odd assemblage of parts, costing under $3,000, that included a motor shaft assembly from a lawn mower. He said he is pleased with the consistent quality of the dosa it makes.

“A machine doesn’t have a bad day,” he said.

But Mr. Loganathan’s self-made device is a small affair compared with the handful of machines in use at the fast-casual restaurant MakiMaki Sushi chain, which has two locations in Midtown Manhattan. The dining spots put tens of thousands of dollars of technology into place to handle tasks ranging from mixing the rice with vinegar, which is a key step in sushi preparation, to slicing the finished rolls.

MakiMaki owner Kevin Takarada, who once worked as a sushi chef in his parents’ Miami Beach, Fla., sushi restaurant, agrees that machines make a more consistent product. But just as important, he said, is that they can work faster: He estimates that his Japanese-made automated systems can produce about 300 rolls an hour, which he said is about 50% more than his small culinary team could prepare without the machines.

In the case of Social Drink & Food, the bar at Midtown’s Yotel hotel, one of the chief advantages of using a cocktail-making machine is reducing waste.

The device the bar uses measures the amount of liquor in each drink to the smallest of fractions. That means no over-pouring, which is the economic bane of many a bar, said Gil Rubenstein, who owns the company that operates the food-and-beverage operations at the hotel. The cocktail machines start at $28,000, according to Smart Bar USA, the company behind the devices.

While automation offers a restaurant many benefits, the main one is about keeping labor costs down, said Arlene Spiegel, a New York-based hospitality consultant. And that is especially critical at a time when dining spots in the city are feeling financial pressure because of increases in the mandated minimum wage.

Ms. Spiegel also noted that a younger, tech-savvy generation of customers has no issue with robots preparing their food.

“They’re used to having machines take the place of real live experiences,” she said.

Still, restaurateurs are quick to note that they have hardly replaced all their staff with machines. At the Yotel bar, for example, only certain orders are prepared by machine, Mr. Rubenstein noted. And customers always have the opportunity to interact with a bartender if they choose.

Some chefs remain wary of automation, saying machines might work in some settings, but they have their limitations.

Kazushige Suzuki, head sushi chef at Sushi Ginza Onodera, a high-end Japanese restaurant in Midtown, said a machine can’t prepare food with certain nuances in mind.

“Doing it by hand is much better and more respectful of the ingredient,” he said.

Jonathan Shepard, executive chef of the Harlem Pizza Co. and Harlem Burger Co. restaurants, pointed to another issue.

“A robot is not going to recognize a regular” customer, he said.


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