in early May, sweet green It opened its first automated location, in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Illinois. After only a few weeks of operation of the restaurant, the salad chain is preparing to delve into the technology to lower labor costs and improve customer experience.
But in the early days of experimenting with automation, only time will tell if customers, employees, and investors prefer the new way of preparing salads and warm dishes.
Historically, the restaurant industry has been slow to adapt to new technology. The thin profit margins of food restaurants mean that most of them are unwilling to invest in expensive technology that may not work in their kitchens or dining rooms.
But with the so-called Infinite Kitchen, Sweetgreen joins a legion of restaurant companies integrating automation into their business. Starbucks And Chipotle Mexican Grill Among the big names that are exploring artificial intelligence or robotics. Some experiments, such as McDonald’s Testing AI voice dialing for driving lanes, it did not result in nationwide launches.
But Sweetgreen seems to have more faith.
“Within five years, we expect all Sweetgreen stores will eventually be automated,” CEO Jonathan Neiman told investors at the William Blair Growth Conference this month.
Sweetgreen plans to open a second Infinite Kitchen location later this year. The company did not disclose the site, but said it would work to modify an existing site with the technology.
Why did Sweetgreen choose automation?
Sweetgreen jumped into automation in August 2021. A few months before it went public, it bought the salad chain Spyce for nearly $50 million, though the final valuation depends on the startup’s technology performance, according to regulatory filings.
Spyce was the brainchild of four MIT alumni, who founded the company in 2015. They created robotic technology to prepare and serve affordable, healthy meals. The startup opened two restaurants in the Boston area before Sweetgreen bought it.
A month after Sweetgreen’s acquisition of Spyce, and before Spyce’s restaurants closed, the salad chain brought out some menu items to try at a Spyce location.
Then Sweetgreen worked out how to make the automated kitchen work for its restaurants.
“The fundamentals of IK were the same. What we focused on was making it operationally easy to interact with – to store, to clean and to maintain. There were also some tweaks to protect the quality of the food,” Timothy Noonan, Sweetgreen’s Vice President of Operations Strategy and Concept Design, speaking to CNBC.
The chain had to figure out how to hand out goat cheese that clumps easily and cherry tomatoes that crunch easily. It also tweaked the technology to ensure consistent portions, whether it’s for airy arugula or heavy toppings like sunflower seeds. Sweetgreen has also added the ability to rotate the bowls as they move along the conveyor belt that fills the bowls, ensuring even distribution of ingredients and the ability to finally mix the ingredients together.
“We have a great team, but it’s really hard to make it completely accurate and consistent,” Neiman told CNBC. “And the other amazing thing is that the tops don’t feel crazy. They’re not like some of our stores in New York. That allows us to be there, to serve more people, and that makes it smoother.”
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 want to understand how suburban customers react to this,” Noonan said.
Inside the Infinity Kitchen
Exterior of Sweetgreen’s Naperville location
While Sweetgreen may tout labor savings to investors, Naperville is designed to put a face on outgoing orders.
The external features of the restaurant A large window shows Sweetgreen workers preparing ingredients that will make their way to Infinite Kitchen dispensers and eventually to final orders.
“It starts with human hands,” Noonan said, “and we have people who finish the dishes after the machine produces them, so it ends up with human hands.”
The Naperville location displays Sweetgreen’s merchandise and beverages before customers place their orders on the tablets.
Upon entering the restaurant, customers pass by a display fridge for drinks and a rack of Sweetgreen-branded T-shirts and sweatshirts to order their food. A large digital menu board hangs above the screen, flashing recommendations for new customers.
“We know our list of some clients can be a little overwhelming,” Noonan said.
Customers can order from one of five tablets set up in the middle of the store. If none are available, patrons can order from the app instead of waiting in line. Unlike a traditional Sweetgreen, customers will not have to wait 10-15 minutes for mobile orders.
For now, the employee is hanging around tablets helping customers place their orders. Noonan said Sweetgreen still decides how much human presence she needs during that move.
Behind the order counter is the Infinite Kitchen, which assembles customers’ salads and warm bowls.
Behind the counter is the “Infinite Kitchen,” which looks like the bulk food dispensers found in some grocery stores. The dispensers contain almost all the ingredients for assembling warm dishes and salads for customers.
After placing the order, the Infinite Kitchen begins assembling the bowl, starting with the dressing on the bottom. Then come the greens and grains, followed by the rest of your chosen toppings. At each station, the bowls rotate slightly, allowing fresh ingredients to go into empty space. Bowls slide through dispensers for ingredients you don’t need, unless there’s a dish in front blocking their path.
The final automated step is mixing salads or dishes. A worker waits at the end of the assembly line to add herbs, avocados, and fish—all of which the Infinite Kitchen can’t add yet.
“There are still a couple of things we have to do manually, but we think focusing will allow us to have better accuracy,” Noonan said. “We still need someone to check the orders.”
The conveyor belt can hold up to 20 bowls, with room to add more if needed, and can make up to 600 bowls per hour if no mixing is required, according to Noonan.
Even behind the scenes, the setup is deceptively simple. Stairs behind the end of the assembly line lead to a mezzanine where dispensers can be reloaded. The monitors show if any components are operating at a low level or indicate any possible malfunctions, such as an overfilled distributor.
If any dispensers stop working, ingredients can be moved to a different location or added manually at the end of the process. But overall, the workers are relatively unoccupied at Infinite Kitchen.
The fruits of the work of automation
Wall Street is primarily interested in the ability of automation to lower labor costs, though Sweetgreen and other restaurant chains deny that this is the only motivation to explore the technology.
TD Cowen estimated last year that about 30% of Sweetgreen’s costs are labor, with half of its employees preparing food and the other half packing orders. Reducing labor means increasing profit margins. Sweetgreen is already profitable on the restaurant level, though the company overall is not yet profitable.
It’s already clear that Infinite Kitchen means fewer Sweetgreen workers in restaurants. Noonan said sites with an infinite kitchen can count on about half the workers at a traditional site. They don’t need to boost the number of workers who are scheduled to work five-hour shifts to handle massive peak periods – which only last about 90 minutes.
“Part of the beauty of this is being able to keep the same team size and let the machine absorb the peak,” said Noonan.
The staff has to prep the endless kitchen in the morning, making sure it’s well stocked and calibrated to get accurate, consistent portions. Throughout the day, workers will watch digital screens telling them if any dispensers are running low on ingredients or encountering any problems. At the end of the day, the staff will have to clean up the system.
Sweetgreen expects some secondary business benefits, too. Workers at the Naperville site did not need additional training, and training at the Infinite Kitchen sites should be faster.
“A big part of training in a typical restaurant is not only rehearsing the preparation processes, but also knowing how to memorize our basic menu items,” Noonan said.
Neiman also said that a quieter restaurant environment could mean employees stay longer, which reduces turnover, which is a common problem in the restaurant industry.
Until now, customers had barely noticed the automation, according to Noonan. He said they often think of ordering tablets as the automated gadgets and mistake the infinite kitchen for a fridge displaying the ingredients.
But the site’s use of automation doesn’t seem to alienate many customers. Broadly speaking, consumers are becoming more comfortable with technology in restaurants. A Deloitte survey conducted in March found that 60% of respondents reported being somewhat likely to order from a kitchen that prepares food at least in part using robotic technologies. This is up from the 54% in a survey the consulting firm conducted two years ago.
The buzz around the use of automation at the Naperville restaurant seems to be intriguing, though it’s too early to tell if the crowds will still be there in a few months’ time. Rich Shank, vice president of research and insights for Chicago-based Technomic, told CNBC that co-workers have reported long lines during busy lunch and dinner hours. Shank waits for consumers’ curiosity to subside before visiting.
Changes to the in-person order may contribute to long waiting lines. Sweetgreen’s traditional location lets customers decide on their customized meals as they move along the assembly line, telling employees what ingredients they want. This approach usually results in streaks at peak times — but they tend to move relatively quickly.
But at Naperville, customers don’t have the same opportunity to look at the ingredient offering. The tablet format will be familiar to anyone who’s used 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 order line went out the door, simply because customers took several minutes to order.
“This may be the downfall of this establishment because if we walked in 5 minutes later and saw that line we would have nailed and eaten elsewhere,” the customer wrote in the review.
It’s a common problem for fast-food restaurants that have designed their menus around personalization, according to Shank.
“It was judged whether the user interface of any kind of kiosk could solve this problem,” Shank said.
On a more basic level, customers can also be aware that they want a human to compile their orders.
“It is faster for a human being to hear the assignment requested by the customer and quickly make adjustments. The machine, in its current form at least, does not appear to be able to handle the improvisation that often occurs on the line, such as “I don’t want too much sauce” or “Can you Made it too light for the marinade?” Shank said.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that Infinite Kitchen technology can fail, despite Sweetgreen’s best efforts to eliminate bugs that could cause the system to crash. The Naperville site layout is not built with backup lines of work that allow employees to quickly manually collect orders.