Like all startup ideas, the concept for a robotic kitchen started with a hunger — in this case, a literal one for food that was tasty, healthy, and fit within a college student’s budget.
Two years and dozens of recipes later, that concept came to life in the form of the fast-casual eatery Spyce.
“Spyce is the world’s first restaurant featuring a robotic kitchen,” said Luke Schlueter, SB ’16, lead mechanical engineer on the Spyce team. “Basically our goal is to use automation to provide wholesome, high-quality, delicious meals at a very affordable price.”
On May 3, Spyce opened for business in downtown Boston, a far cry — though not a far distance — from its beginning days on the MIT campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The menu is based on a half-dozen bowls with flavors that are common in Latin, Mediterranean, and Asian dishes. Every bowl starts at $7.50, and customers can add on other proteins for an additional cost.
The co-founders said the next few months will focus on concept testing and validation, with the goal of opening more restaurants in the Boston area.
“We got our start being hungry MIT college kids,” Schlueter said. “One of our co-founders, Michael (Farid) had recently started his grad program getting his masters in mechanical engineering and he no longer had the option for food through the dining hall. He didn’t have time to cook for himself every night, and he was fed up with paying $10, $12, $13 for those fast-casual meals, and he thought ‘there must be a better way.’”
Farid, MechE ’16, decided to see if he could build a robot that could cook him meals. He pitched the idea to his friends Schlueter, Braden Knight, BS ’16, and Kale Rogers, BS ’16.
The team started experimenting, and also successfully applied to MIT’s 2015 Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator, now known as MIT delta v.
“That’s where we really kind of developed the first prototype,” Schlueter said. “Our goal that summer was to build a robot that could make a meal at the push of a button.”
The push of a button is what triggers the meal-making process today at Spyce. Customers enter the restaurant and are greeted by a human guide who takes them to a touchscreen kiosk where they place their order.
Once the order is sent to the kitchen, containers dispense the ingredients into one of seven cooking woks. The woks are tilted so customers can watch their food rotate and cook behind the counter. The bowls are taken from the kitchen counter by a “garde manger,” a person who finishes the meal with various cold garnishes like pumpkin seeds, cilantro, and crumbled goat cheese.The customer is then handed their bowl.
“We didn’t want your food to come out of some random box,” Schlueter said. “It really helps you connect with your food if you can see it being prepared. That was a big part of it.”
Schlueter admitted a cooking robot is “a little bit of a weird idea,” which is why the Spyce team wanted to be as transparent as possible about the meal preparation.
The food itself was another challenge. The team had to build a technology that handled food carefully, so vegetables wouldn’t get bruised, and grains wouldn’t get end up mushy.
The Spyce team also hired Sam Benson, of Café Boulud, as the executive chef. Benson had learned about Spyce from Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud, who joined Spyce as an advisor after seeing a demonstration of the robot.
“Basically we just said here’s the technology as it stands, this is what we want to do, we want to make a restaurant using technology, have at it,” Schlueter said. “Come up with as many bowl ideas as you want.”
With the restaurant now open, Schlueter said the goal is making the robotic kitchen a success — but don’t expect any fewer humans in the eatery.
“Our robotic kitchen was designed to be a tool,” Schlueter said. “At our restaurant our robotic kitchen allows our garde mangers to focus on making our bowls look beautiful, applying the finishing touches, and being creative. We also have a commissary team that preps our ingredients for the robotic kitchen. We've designed the robotic kitchen to work in harmony with humans, because without humans, our robotic kitchen would not function.”