I talk a lot about automation and robotics in the restaurant space. That’s probably because I’m a nerdy foodie, but that’s a story for another day. It’s becoming clearer with each passing day and each new press release that this innovative technology is poised to permanently disrupt our dining experience. The most recent fast-casual restaurant chain to adopt the automation model is sweetgreen.
Sweetgreen opened its first robotic restaurant in Naperville, Illinois, earlier this year and called it Infinite Kitchen. Here’s how it works. When entering the restaurant, guests approach the “host” station and use the self-service kiosks to place their orders. Customers then watch their meals being made by machines along a conveyor belt. The machines effortlessly dispense greens, evenly distribute ingredients, and perfectly mix the salads. At the end, employees add the finishing touches before the order is complete.
Two years ago, sweetgreen acquired Spyce Kitchen, a company that specialized in automated robotic makelines. According to Michael Wolf for The Spoon, “The Infinite Kitchen name is not new; Spyce first used the name when it launched its second-generation robotic kitchen platform in November 2020 and, like the new Sweetgreen Infinite Kitchen, the system was visually reminiscent of the Creator burger makeline. The system’s conveyor belt runs under ingredient dispensers that drop customized mixes of fresh ingredients into bowls.”
The process of adding automation to food preparation was not without its challenges. In a CNBC article, Amelia Lucas writes: “The chain had to work out how to dispense goat cheese, which clumps easily, and cherry tomatoes, which could be easily squished. It also tweaked the technology to ensure consistent portions, whether for airy arugula or heavier toppings such as sunflower seeds. Sweetgreen also added the ability to rotate bowls as they move along the conveyor belt that fills dishes, ensuring even distribution of components, and the capacity to mix the ingredients together at the end.”
Joe Ciolli, an author for Insider, detailed his experience at the restaurant in a recent article. Although impressed by the efficiency of the process, he did note the necessity of human workers. “Despite the autonomous nature of the wildly impressive Infinite Kitchen, human labor was still crucial for the operation. I spotted employees preparing ingredients, same as any other Sweetgreen. There was also someone monitoring the ordering kiosks, offering assistance and even handing out samples.” Joe’s ultimate conclusion as a sweetgreen fan was that there was no difference between a bowl made by hand, and one made through automation.
After two-and-a-half months of operation, the restaurant boasts some impressive statistics. According to Ben Coley for QSR, the store's restaurant-level margin in June was 26%, which is much higher than other new locations, and the company is confident that this number will only increase over time. The restaurant has the capability to produce 400-500 meals per hour while only employing a third of the staff of a comparable location.
According to Restaurant Business, sweetgreen plans to open a second Infinite Kitchen location before the end of the year by outfitting an existing restaurant with automation technology. If the second test location is as profitable as the first, then the company will begin rolling out the Infinite Kitchen concept to more restaurants in 2024.
In a press release, Jonathan Neman, CEO and Co-Founder of sweetgreen, said, "We believe that automation will enable us to elevate the quality and integrity of our food while also providing a faster and more convenient experience for our customers and a better, more dynamic job for our team members. With the integration of the sweetgreen Infinite Kitchen in our restaurants, we can unlock efficiencies that will enable us to grow more quickly as we scale.”