early may, sweet green Opened the first automation location in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Illinois. Just weeks after the restaurant opened, the salad chain is ready to go all-in on technology to cut labor costs and improve the customer experience.
But in the early days of automation trials, only time will tell if customers, employees and investors like the new way to make salads and warm bowls.
The restaurant industry has historically been slow to adapt to new technologies. The tight profit margins for restaurants mean that most restaurants don’t want to invest in expensive technology that might not be right for their kitchen or dining room.
But with what it calls an “infinite kitchen,” Sweetgreen joins the ranks of restaurant companies that are integrating automation into their operations. Starbucks and Chipotle Mexican Grill is one of the most famous people exploring artificial intelligence or robotics.some experiments like McDonald’s AI voice ordering for drive-thru lanes has been tested but has not yet been rolled out nationwide.
But it looks like Sweetgreen is more confident.
“Within five years, we do expect that all Sweetgreen stores will eventually be automated,” Chief Executive Jonathan Neman told investors at the William Blair Growth Stock Conference this month.
Sweetgreen plans to open a second Infinite Kitchen location later this year. The company has not disclosed the exact location, but said it will use the technology to retrofit existing locations.
Why Sweetgreen Chooses Automation
Sweetgreen enters automation in August 2021.just a few months ago The salad chain bought Spyce for about $50 million after it went public, but regulatory filings show the final valuation depends on how well the startup’s technology performs.
Spyce is the brainchild of four MIT graduates who founded the company in 2015. They created robotics to make and serve healthy meals at affordable prices. Before Sweetgreen’s acquisition, the startup had two restaurants in the Boston area.
A month after Sweetgreen acquired Spyce, the salad chain brought some menu items to try out at one of Spyce’s locations before closing Spyce’s restaurants.
Sweetgreen then worked on figuring out how to make robotic kitchens work for its restaurants.
“The core fundamentals of IK are the same. We focused on making it operationally easy to interact with team members – storage, cleaning, maintenance. Some adjustments were also made to protect food quality,” Timothy Noonan , Sweet Green’s The vice president of operations strategy and conceptual design told CNBC.
The chain had to figure out how to dispense goat cheese, which tends to clump together, and cherry tomatoes, which tend to get crushed. It also tweaks the technique to ensure consistent serving sizes, whether it’s fluffy arugula or heavier toppings like sunflower seeds. Sweetgreen also added the ability to rotate the bowl as it travels along the conveyor belt full of dishes, ensuring even distribution of ingredients, and finally the ability to blend the ingredients together.
“We’ve got a great team, but it’s been really difficult to be completely accurate and consistent,” Neman told CNBC. “The other thing that’s been amazing is that the peak doesn’t feel crazy. It’s not like what we have in New York. A few stores. That allows us to be there, serve more people, and it will feel more even.”
After months of testing the technology in the lab, Sweetgreen decided to try it out in Naperville, adding it to a new restaurant that was originally slated to be a traditional location.
“We wanted to understand how suburban customers interacted with it,” Noonan said.
The exterior of the Sweetgreen Naperville branch
While Sweetgreen may tout labor savings to investors, the Naperville plant was designed to give an image of completed orders.
The appearance of the restaurant A large window shows Sweetgreen workers preparing ingredients that will go into dispensers in the Infinity Kitchen and eventually into finished orders.
“It started with human hands, and after the machine produced the bowl we had people finish the bowl, so it ended with human hands,” Noonan said.
The Naperville store displays Sweetgreen merchandise and beverages before customers place orders via tablets.
Upon entering the restaurant, customers pass a refrigerator displaying beverages and a shelf of Sweetgreen sweatshirts and T-shirts to order. A large digital menu board hangs above the display, flashing recommendations for new customers.
“We know our menu might be a bit overwhelming for some customers,” Noonan said.
Customers can order from one of five tablets set up in the middle of the store. If no seats are available, diners can order on the app instead of waiting in line. Unlike traditional Sweetgreen restaurants, customers don’t have to wait 10 to 15 minutes to pick up their mobile orders.
Currently, an employee hovers over a tablet helping customers place orders. Noonan said Sweetgreen is still deciding how many people will be involved in this step.
Behind the ordering counter is the Infinity Kitchen, which prepares salads and hot bowls for customers.
Behind the counter is an “infinity kitchen,” similar to the bulk food dispensers in some grocery stores. The dispenser holds nearly all the ingredients needed to prepare hot bowls and salads for customers.
After an order is placed, Infinity Kitchen starts assembling the bowl, starting with the seasoning at the bottom. Then vegetables and grains, then the rest of the selected toppings. At each station, the bowl rotates slightly to allow new ingredients into the empty spaces. The bowl slides over the dispenser to access unwanted ingredients unless a plate in front blocks their path.
The final automated step is mixing the salad or bowl. A worker waits at the end of the assembly line to add herbs, avocados and fish — all things Infinity Kitchen can’t yet add.
“There are still some things we have to do by hand, but we believe that focusing will allow us to be more accurate,” Noonan said. “We still want someone to check the order.”
Noonan said the conveyor belt can hold up to 20 bowls, with room to add more if needed, and can make up to 600 bowls an hour if mixing is not required.
Even behind the scenes, setup is pretty simple. Stairs behind the end of the assembly line lead to the mezzanine, where the dispensers can be reloaded. The screen will show if any ingredients are low or signal any possible malfunctions, such as the dispenser being overfilled.
If any dispensers stop working, ingredients can be moved to another location or added manually at the end of the process. But overall, the workers in the Infinity Kitchen are relatively uninterrupted.
Wall Street is primarily concerned with automation’s ability to reduce labor costs, though Sweetgreen and other restaurant chains deny that’s their sole motivation for exploring the technology.
TD Cowen estimated last year that about 30% of Sweetgreen’s costs are labor, half of which prepares food and the other half assembles orders. Less labor means more profit margins. Sweetgreen is already profitable at the restaurant level, though the company as a whole is not.
Clearly, “infinite kitchens” would mean fewer Sweetgreen workers in restaurants. Restaurants with “infinite kitchens” can rely on roughly half the workers of traditional restaurants, Noonan said. They don’t need to schedule as many workers on 5-hour shifts to handle peak periods (which only last about 90 minutes).
“One of the benefits of this is being able to keep the same size team and let the machines absorb the spikes,” Noonan said.
Staff have to set up the Infinity Kitchen in the morning, make sure it’s well stocked and calibrated to ensure accurate and consistent portion sizes. Throughout the day, staff watch digital screens that tell them if any dispensers are running low on ingredients or experiencing any issues. At the end of the day, employees have to clean up the system.
Sweetgreen anticipates some minor workforce benefits as well. Workers at the Naperville plant don’t need additional training, and training at the Infinity Kitchen plant should be quicker.
“An important part of typical restaurant training involves not only the training preparation process, but also how to remember our core menu items,” Noonan said.
Nieman also said that a quieter restaurant environment could mean staff linger longer, reducing turnover, a common problem in the restaurant industry.
So far, customers have barely noticed the automation, Noonan said. They often think of ordering tablets as automation tools and mistake Infinity Kitchen for a refrigerator displaying ingredients, he said.
But the location’s use of automation doesn’t appear to alienate many patrons. Overall, consumer acceptance of restaurant technology is growing. A Deloitte survey in March found that 60% of respondents said they were likely to order food from kitchens that at least partially use robotics to prepare food. That’s up from 54 percent in the consultancy’s survey two years ago.
Rumors of the use of automation at the Naperville restaurant seem to be piqued by interest, though it’s too early to tell if the crowds will still be there in a few months. Rich Shank, vice president of research and insights at Chicago-based Technomic, told CNBC that his colleagues have reported long lines during busy lunch and dinner hours. Shank is waiting for consumers’ curiosity to wear off before visiting.
Changes to in-person ordering may result in long lines. Traditional Sweetgreen locations allow customers to decide on custom meals as they move along the assembly line, telling employees what ingredients they want. This method often results in queues during busy times, but queues tend to be relatively fast.
But in Naperville, customers don’t have the same opportunity to view ingredient displays. The tablet format will be familiar to anyone familiar with Sweetgreen’s website and mobile app, but it can create a bottleneck for customers who aren’t sure about their orders.
One Yelp reviewer said the ordering lines were full only because it took a few minutes for customers to order.
“This is probably the downfall of this restaurant because if we walk in 5 minutes later and see the line, we’ll walk over and eat somewhere else,” the customer wrote in the review.
This is a common problem for fast-casual restaurants building menus around custom menus, Shank said.
“The ultimate conclusion is whether any kind of kiosk user interface can solve this problem,” Shank said.
On a more basic level, customers may also realize that they need someone to assemble their order.
“It’s much faster for a human to hear the customization a customer is asking for and make adjustments on the fly. A machine, at least in its current form, sounds like it won’t be able to handle the improvisation that often happens on the production line, like ‘I don’t need that much sauce ’ or ‘Can you make the dressing a little lighter?’” Shank said.
Of course, despite Sweetgreen’s best efforts to eliminate bugs that could bring down the system, it’s still possible for Infinity Kitchen’s technology to malfunction. The layout of the Naperville factory does not have a backup line for employees to quickly assemble orders by hand.