Forget about your stereotype of the short-fused chef barking orders to a team of frazzled cooks. At Spyce Food Co., the robot kitchen is wired to achieve culinary perfection without making much of a peep or breaking a sweat.
The fast-casual-yet-futuristic restaurant, which opened its doors in Boston’s Downtown crossing on Thursday, is the robotic brainchild of four MIT grads and a Michelin-starred chef.
The menu consists of seven bowl-style options including Indian, Latin, and Thai -- all “internationally-inspired and vegetable-centric,” according Spyce CEO and cofounder Michael Farid (carnivore, pescatarian, and vegan options are all available).
Eating dinner made by a robot
At first glance, Spyce has the look and feel of your average fast-casual restaurant: communal counter space, a few scattered tables, and seats for about 15 customers.
But throughout the dining experience, customers are invited to engage with technology in ways you likely won’t see at your average neighborhood take-out spot: using tablets to sift through the menu options, order, and pay, and -- of course -- eating food prepared by robots.
During my visit on a recent evening, I opted for the Indian bowl -- Farid’s favorite, he told me.
I punched in my order and, within seconds, the robotic kitchen spun into gear.
Here’s what it looks like:
Seven cylindrical woks -- what Farid calls “robotic woks” -- are mounted in a line.
Refrigerated chambers, containing each of the ingredients that go into the bowl-style meals, are mounted above the woks.
A small orange box -- Farid calls it “the runner” -- slides up and down the length of the line, grabbing vegetables, roasted chicken, potatoes, brown rice and other ingredients, depending on the order.
The ingredients are dispensed into the work, which then begins to rotate, mixing the ingredients, cooking and searing the meal.
The robots, however, aren’t running this kitchen alone.
It’s humans who do the chopping before the meal is cooked, and top the meal with cold ingredients once the cooking’s done.
By automating the process and cutting overhead costs, Farid says they’ve been able to keep the price of the bowls down to $7.50, before add-ons.
Spyce promises to deliver each meal in three minutes or less.
High-tech or hype?
Some experts have questioned the novelty of the invention and whether Spyce does, indeed, house the “world’s first robotic kitchen,” as it touts.
“I really wouldn’t consider that a robot,” Tom Ryden, director of Boston-based startup incubator MassRobotics, told the Associated Press.“It can’t make decisions… It can’t say something’s cooked too long. There’s no feedback loop. It’s just an automated system.”
But many agree that Spyce is an example of the automation we’re likely to see in the food sector in the near future.
Cooking up the robotic kitchen
The 26-year-old CEO came up with the idea of the robotic kitchen during his first semester of grad school at MIT.
“The idea was to create delicious, amazing meals at an affordable price point,” Farid said.
To bring his robotic vision to life, Farid partnered with three fellow MIT students. The four have since earned the nickname ‘Spyce boys’ -- a nod to the English pop girl band Spice Girls.
“Luke, who’s the best looking, gets to be Posh Spice,” Farid said of Spyce lead mechanical engineer Luke Schlueter.
There’s COO Kale Rogers, nicknamed Ginger Spice because of his “flock of red hair,” and lead electrical Engineer Brady Knight, nicknamed Baby Spice “because he looks like he’s 15,” Farid said. “I think by process of elimination that made me Sporty Spice,” he added.
Designing and building the robotic kitchen was a years-long process that started with the four co-founders -- then MIT students -- strategizing in their dorm rooms, and eventually building a prototype of the robotic kitchen in their fraternity basement.
“We made it … out of like plywood and parts we got from Home Depot and power strips and hobbyist-level components.” Rogers said. “Just about every step of the way it's been exciting… to see it come to life.”
When the group was ready to bring their product to market, they reached out to Daniel Boulud, French chef and owner of Bar Boulud in Boston.
“We recognized pretty earlier on that we were entering the food industry … the restaurant business. And we realized we needed some top culinary talent supporting us,” Farid said. “We’d heard of [Boulud], we knew that he was one of the top chefs in the world [and] we decided to reach out. I actually guessed his email address and I guess we got lucky and he responded.”
Boulud connected the team with one of his former employees, Sam Benson, who’s now Spyce’s executive chef. Together, they tested recipes and helped shape the restaurant’s menu.
Following months of of food-safety and emissions evaluations, the Spyce Boys say they’re excited to share that menu with the city where it all began.
And as for that robot-prepared Indian bowl I ordered during my visit?
I’d say it was delicious, prepared with just the right amount of human touch, robotic precision and, of course, spice.