Starting in 1987, the US television series Star Trek: The Next Generation featured Captain Jean-Luc Picard ordering the Food Replicator for “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot!” This captured the imagination of millions as they got a peek into a futuristic alternative reality. Sadly, the Food Replicator is still far from reality, unlike a dozen other sci-fi predictions such as self-driving cars and space travel. But there’s hope, with home-grown robot companies and cloud kitchen start-ups like Mukunda Foods, Xook and RoboChef working to make this a reality. In fact, some of them used the Replicator as an analogy when starting out to build robotic solutions for commercial kitchens.
“Food replication might be sci-fi today, but the industry is certainly moving towards special focus products, and then towards multi-purpose machines focussing on specific kinds of food. That will become a more pervasive reality in the food robotics segment. Automation is a must for companies that want cooked food delivered in 10 minutes,” says Rajagopal Natarajan, Co-founder of Bengaluru-based start-up Xook that offers meal preparation robots, co-working office spaces and apartment complexes. While customers can personalise their food based on taste preferences like spicy, sweet, creamy, or saucy, these machines can rustle up salads and six other types of dishes within two minutes!
A new phenomenon in the country, a dozen tech start-ups like Xook are operating a kitchen-as-a-service (KaaS) model in the Indian food service delivery market that is expected to double in value to $13 billion by 2025, according to research firm RedSeer. A report by Motilal Oswal pegs the market in India to grow at over 30 per cent CAGR between 2021 and 2026. Meanwhile, the global online food delivery services market size is expected to grow from $115.11 billion in 2021 to $128.32 billion in 2022 at a CAGR of 11.5 per cent, according to the Business Research Company.
Bengaluru-based Mukunda Foods is another kitchen robotics firm leveraging this trend. Founded nearly two decades ago as a quick service restaurant (QSR), today it is powering food delivery platform Zomato’s 10-minute delivery dream. Earlier this year, Zomato bought a 16.66 per cent stake in the company, an acknowledgement of the potential of these start-ups. “For an order to be delivered in 10 minutes, food must be ready and out of the kitchen in three minutes. People start ordering when they’re hungry. If they get tasty food [delivered] faster, they might actually pay a premium for the convenience they’re getting,” explains Mukunda Foods Co-founder & CEO Eshwar K. Vikas. “The No. 1 filter that’s used on Zomato and Swiggy is speed. That’s where we come in. We don’t regenerate the food; we cook it faster and people know the difference.”
According to Vikas, building a physical product (hardware) has many challenges because unlike a software product, changes cannot be made on the go. The product’s development is tedious, and usually takes four to five years with huge expenses. The other challenge for these tech firms is to get the taste of the food right because it’s more of a culinary art than a mechanical one. Hence, apart from the challenges of designing efficient hardware, taste and recipes play a major role. “The availability of quality talent in food tech, globally, is less, and you have to build the talent, which is time consuming,” he adds.
With the average price of its robots between Rs 35,000 and Rs 2 lakh, Mukunda Foods has so far automated over 3,000 commercial kitchens in over 22 countries. Working with 250 players, such as ITC and Chaayos, it is helping chefs make this ‘tech-tonic’ shift. In the past two years, it claims to have sold more than a thousand robots, and the demand is growing.
So, how do these robot chefs prepare your favourite shahi paneer once you order? A shahi paneer recipe can be made within three minutes using a Mukunda Foods kitchen robot called ‘Wokie’. First a chef makes the base gravy, the automated wok then adds paneer, cream and other spices in the perfect proportion at the touch of a button. And, your favourite shahi paneer is ready. Not just that, a whole list of recipes can be prepared. For example, another machine called ‘Misty’ can make momos from scratch, while ‘Dosamatic’ can churn out delectable dosas in two minutes. There are many other such machines these start-ups have designed, and many more are under development.
While cooking can be automated, what about taste? “We spend at least two to three years in getting the taste right. Nobody will buy the machines for its tech, if the food doesn’t taste nice. That’s why we work with a lot of in-house chefs,” says Vikas of Mukunda Foods. His machines, Vikas says, have solved the challenge of standardisation of taste, temperature and quality for QSRs and cloud kitchens. Other beneficiaries of their smart kitchen include brands such as Auntie Fung’s, edabba, Biggies Burger and Meraki, among others.
RoboChef, another company in the automated kitchens space, has taken the tech to the next level. Its kitchens are fully automated with minimal need of a chef to be present. Currently, its equipment is in use in about 50 kitchens in Chennai, Hyderabad and Singapore. It runs a multi-vessel system with digital recipes that are used to make biryanis and curries, and other dishes. If a QSR or cloud kitchen can shell out `1 crore for its solution, then churning out 20,000 portions of biryani in a few minutes is child’s play.
Not just KaaS start-ups, this trend has also led to a rise in cloud kitchens that are exclusively focussed on order delivery, and they are increasingly using technology and automation to reduce their daily production and delivery times. “A very natural behaviour is that you start thinking about food when you’re hungry. So, there are a lot of relevant use cases for 10-minute food delivery for consumers. Coming to the execution side of things, it’s a tricky problem to solve,” says Rohan Agarwal, Partner at RedSeer. “Deliveries are where it takes the most time, which means that the food preparation time needs to come down. That’s where these [kitchen tech] solutions will come in handy. They will be able to speed up the preparation, [and make the process] fail-safe, tech driven and consistent. It also helps you improve margins on the kitchen side because the cost of manual labour comes down,” he adds. According to RedSeer, cloud kitchens are set to be a $2-billion industry in India by 2024, up from $400 million in 2019.
Meanwhile, Mumbai-based Ghost Kitchen India has a portfolio of 30 in-house food delivery brands, including Starboy Pizza & Shakes, New York Waffles & Dinges and Wakka Makka, across cuisine categories. “Technology is heavily influencing the food delivery industry. [It plays a big role] in our operations,” says Karan Tanna, Founder and CEO of Ghost Kitchen India. Apart from robotics, AI is used to predict the amount of ingredients to be used in a particular recipe. Similarly, ML and open data are key tools that enable access to real-time and aggregated data visibility that helps in inventory or stock management.
Tanna says foodtech is not only about leveraging discovery platforms but also using tech that is customised to your operations. “We use AI to predict the requirement of raw material in our kitchen so that we never run out of them; the availability ratio of menu items is always targeted above 95 per cent. Now it’s not only about food, but also about how to best leverage the customer who shops online and deliver him the experience that increases the stickiness of the brand,” he says.
Rebel Foods, a Mumbai-based company that operates over 45 cloud kitchen brands including Faasos and Behrouz Biryani, uses software, robotics and automation for food preparation. The company uses a lot of embedded systems, AI, and IoT in collaboration with its partners. “We are also building smart kitchen appliances and machinery that are already operational in the kitchens. We are also developing machines that understand recipes,” says Prakash Dutta, Global COO, Rebel Foods. For instance, the company uses a rotating wok that simulates a chef’s stir-frying motion. The wok also controls the temperature and the amount of oil dispensed. Dutta says the company has also attached a video screen and an app to the wok. At different stages of cooking, the machine instructs the chef when to add the different ingredients as per the recipe. “While chefs will come and go at Rebel Foods, intelligent robots are passing down recipes,” says Dutta, adding that these machines enable the company to run multiple brands—including those of its partners—from the same kitchen. “The future of food is very exciting—deep personalisation, automation, farm to fork tracing, complete transparency, and safety,” adds Dutta.
Well, it looks like the Food Replicator isn’t too far into the future.
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