(All photos by Zeng Shi.)
Steamed fish, tender and smooth; stir-fried beef cooked with the perfect heat; and claypot rice with preserved sausage complete with that golden crust lining.
Who would guess that these mouthwatering dishes are cooked by robots, since they look no different from those prepared by human chefs?
A few months ago, a new completely robotised restaurant specialising in Shunde cuisine* opened in Guangzhou. From stir-frying to steaming and boiling, from mains like burgers and claypot rice to desserts and cocktails, all 30-something items on Foodom's menu are prepared by robots.
Foodom has 46 working robots. As soon as you step into the restaurant, a welcome robot guides you to a seat as it chats with you. Then, you scan a code with your mobile to order, and the robots that receive the order start their work: they pick out the necessary ingredients in the kitchen and send them to the appropriate robot chefs who take care of different dishes and cook them precisely in a specified time.
The serving process is a ritual. A robot loads the food onto preheated dishes, which are then transported to your table via rails on the ceiling. Projection lights tell the customer to get ready to "welcome" the food, and a few seconds later the food is “parachuted” down on petal-shaped trays. Robots do most of the work in the restaurant, but there are also a few human servers who help guide new customers.
Robots deliver consistent quality
With technological advancements, in recent years more and more eateries in China are starting to use robots, mostly for food assembly, ordering, and delivery. This restaurant in Guangzhou is the first in China to use robots for the entire process, from the central kitchen to the cold chain logistics. The place has quickly gone viral online, with many customers coming for the novelty, waiting times can be as long as one or two hours during peak hours.
The “masters” behind the robots are ten well-known chefs from Shunde, who worked with robotic engineers on countless adjustments in temperature control, taste and texture, volume of ingredients, and cooking time, which were then programmed in the robots.
Consistency in quality is considered one of the advantages of using robots. According to Foodom's manager, while food quality can vary with human chefs, robots follow instructions to the letter, and every dish is of a consistent standard.
Of course, food safety and quality is the key to the sustainability of any eatery. The “masters” behind the robots are ten well-known chefs from Shunde, who worked with robotic engineers on countless adjustments in temperature control, taste and texture, volume of ingredients, and cooking time, which were then programmed in the robots.
A customer who ordered a beef burger says she feels the robot-made burger is comparable to those of popular chains, and at less than 10 RMB (S$1.90), the price is worth it. As for the other dishes, online reviews are mixed. Some say they are “authentic”, “tasty”, and “better than expected”, while others feel that it is “so-so”, and “the experience is not bad, but the dishes could taste better".
Robot chefs to the rescue in Hubei
However, soon after the restaurant opened in late December last year, the coronavirus hit. On 12 February, eateries in Guangzhou temporarily halted operations. They were only allowed to gradually resume operations after the authorities came up with rules and regulations after 20 February.
The restaurant manager said the robot restaurant has an edge over traditional restaurants in terms of manpower costs. While people were tentative when businesses first resumed, the unmanned nature, cleanliness, convenience, and efficiency of the robot restaurant made people feel more assured, and table occupancy was higher than at nearby traditional restaurants.
The robots also made a contribution during the 76-day lockdown in Wuhan. Following the outbreak, many eateries in Wuhan were shut. The claypot rice robots from Foodom were remodelled into multi-purpose machines and shipped to Hubei to help with coronavirus efforts by providing healthcare workers with contactless meals. And being robots, they were able to be "on duty" 24/7, performing checks and controls on ingredients to ensure food safety, even when they were not cooking.
Funding robotics with property development
The robot restaurant comes under the Foodom group, a subsidiary of Chinese property giant the Country Garden group. Robotics is a new area of focus for Country Garden, which is also into property development and modern farming.
Since the Foodom group was established in May last year, Country Garden has invested US$240 million in research and development, with an R&D team of 750. Foodom assistant general manager Xiao Ran said the core technology for the 46 robots in the Guangzhou restaurant was all developed in-house. Besides robots for use in food and beverage, the team has also started research and development in robots for construction and healthcare.
According to Xiao, even though the robot restaurant is an innovation for the F&B industry, it is not easy to get returns on such investment in the short term. Xiao notes that only large-scale growth will bring in profits, and the Foodom group has plans to open robot eateries in the Greater Bay Area and major cities throughout China. Its next robot restaurant will open in Foshan and is expected to begin operations in June. Customers can look forward to enjoying food made by coffeemaker robots, second-generation ice cream maker robots, and robots that are capable of preparing noodles and crayfish.
Currently, Country Garden's property arm provides the necessary monetary support for its other ventures. With over 2,000 property projects throughout China serving over 4 million owners, these projects fund its expansion into the F&B industry and even provide a substantial market for it.
In this time of the coronavirus, Country Garden believes there is significantly greater demand for unmanned food and beverage and products that are safe and healthy, and Foodom is working hard to build a new food and beverage model — a 24-hour, unmanned restaurant with a varied menu and a consistent taste.
Yang Guoqiang, founder and chairman of Country Garden Group, believes that robots have unlimited potential, and he hopes to use the Foodom robot restaurants as a starting point to keep innovating and growing. He wants to create robot restaurants that represent the world’s cutting-edge technology, but yet reflect age-old authentic Chinese cuisine that retains familiarity and warmth.
* A key pillar of Cantonese cuisine, Shunde cuisine is food native to Shunde district in Foshan city, Guangdong province.