MIT engineering majors reinvent fast-food dining with a robotic kitchen

By Yanxuan Li
BU News Service

There’s one ingredient missing in this restaurant’s kitchen: the chef. Order a chicken and rice bowl and it will be cooked up by a robot. Spyce, located at 241 Washington Street, features seven rotating robotic woks.

The idea of replacing chefs with an automatic cooking machine came from four MIT mechanical engineering majors. Their wish was simple – to offer food that is tasty, healthy and affordable to college students.

“We all had this issue that we couldn’t get what we considered a very good and delicious meal,” said Kale Rogers, one of the co-founders of Spyce. “As grad students, we no longer had the option for food through the dining hall, and we also didn’t have time to cook at home. So we ended up feeding ourselves up with fast-casual meals that cost $11 to $12 each. As starving college students, we really couldn’t afford to do that every day.”

Knowing each other through a shared class and happening to be in a fraternity together, the four MIT engineers spent the summer of 2015 in the fraternity’s basement coming up with a blueprint for a robotic kitchen.

They wanted to change the model of the labor-intensive fast-food industry, which focuses on on making profits by keeping down the cost of ingredients.

“What we found out is that the fast-food industry is a low-margin business,” Rogers said.

According to Spyce’s research, at least 30 percent of the typical fast-food restaurant’s revenue goes to labor, around 30 percent goes to ingredients, and 25 percent to direct overhead.

“So what happens in the fast-food industry is that all of their innovation has been around decreasing ingredient costs,” Rogers said.
With the robotic kitchen, the restaurant is designed to cut labor costs and leave a larger budget for improving the food.

Rogers and his partners pitched this idea to a startup program at MIT, which earned them funding that helped transform the concept into the business. Three years later, their first restaurant opened.

Since its debut on May 3, Spyce has proven popular with downtown diners. The spot has only 15 seats , so those who don’t get there first have to hang out for five to ten minutes before they can find a seat.

The Spyce team said the restaurant is “at the intersection of hospitality and technology.”

Upon entering, the customers are welcomed and guided to a touch-screen kiosk, where they ponder, order and pay, either by card or by cash.
What remains is just to wait at the pick-up counter for their names to be called. In less than three minutes, the Garde Manger, an employee who puts finishing touches on the meals and slaps on lids and labels with the customers’ names, will hand the bowl to them.According to Rogers, the robotic kitchen in Spyce can serve up to 200 meals per hour which cost around $7.50 each.

Ingredients that arrive that morning are poured into one of the seven rotating woks , which are tilted so that the customers can see the grassy green onions, julienned carrots and diced chicken tumbling before they are served in a bowl. In the end, a spray of water comes out of a nozzle at the side to clean the wok. Spyce currently serves bowls in seven different flavors. All of them created and tested by Daniel Boulud, a French chef who ran a Michelin-2-star restaurant in New York City.

Attracted by the opportunity to combine his expertise in the “old world techniques of French cuisine” with modern technology, Boulud agreed to invest and take on the role of culinary director after he received an email from Spyce outlining the concept. He also helped bring in one of his former employees, Sam Benson, as Spyce’s executive chef.

“We are still trying to bring in more flavors,” Rogers said.

Rogers said they also want to explore how they are sourcing ingredients to enrich their menu.

“We are looking to make some connections with farmers and different sources so that we could produce some different ingredients by ourselves,” Rogers said.

“To be honest, on the technology side of things, I think we are in pretty good shape. But there are absolutely some aspects which we want to dive into. Like the training program for our staff. We want to figure out how we can explain things and present our dishes better.”

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