Automation adds new flavors to catering biz

Pancake robots, smart tea makers, meal producers ... the F&B industry rides new quality productive forces

By Zheng Yiran | China Daily | Updated: 2024-05-04 09:09
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A restaurant employs robotic meal producers in Nanchang, Jiangxi province, in February 2023. [ZONG HUAN/FOR CHINA DAILY]

Restaurants in the city are also applying cutting-edge technologies to increase efficiency and cut costs. For example, around noon on weekdays, Yummy Health, a restaurant that has digitalized most of its operations, located in the Galaxy Soho area of Beijing, employs a robot to stir-fry certain foods.

Yummy Health mainly serves light meals, most of which are delivered to white-collar workers in the area. Chen Yun, its founder, said the robot is bringing real benefits.

"The simplest quick dish can be cooked in about 90 seconds, while chicken curry, which is the most time-consuming dish that our restaurant prepares, now takes only five minutes. A stir-fry robot costs about 50,000 yuan ($6,907), but if you recruit a chef, the cost will be nearly 100,000 yuan per year. Mind you, the robot is still far from reaching its full capacity," Chen said.

The robot has already replaced two cooks and one dish deliveryman. With only three staff members and two temporary workers, the restaurant is now capable of producing over 100 dishes every noon.

The beverage sector is also further integrating high-end technology and automated devices into its operations. During the 4th China International Consumer Products Expo held in Haikou, Hainan province, a wide range of smart tea-making devices were on display. Chinese drink chain Heytea showcased a split-type intelligent tea machine capable of producing a bottle of new-style milk tea in three seconds flat.

The device is Heytea's latest effort to automate milk tea production. Other smart devices include intelligent scales, smart tea dispensers, automatic peeling machines, corers, lemon squeezers, dicers, and intelligent steaming and boiling machines. From raw material preparation and management to tea blending, the production efficiency has improved a great deal, said Heytea.

Take the automatic peeling machine for example. In the past, manual peeling of a basket of grapes took about 15 minutes. Now, the peeler machine takes just around a minute — and pulp retention is more complete. The intelligent tea machine completes the production of a cup of tea in as quickly as four seconds, the company claimed.

According to a report from Guangzhou-based Bright Media, Heytea's self-developed smart solution is comprehensive and refines the steps of tea-making, with each step expected to be accomplished by an intelligent device. There are also tea beverage makers that prefer rather "small and exquisite" solutions — using smart devices in tandem with automated scheduling systems — for more flexibility.

To enable corporate workers to better coordinate with intelligent tea-making machines, tea beverage makers have even established professional teams, recruiting mechanical and electrical engineers to design and develop in-house smart devices. This has allayed concerns that new-age automation technology could increase unemployment in society.

According to a report published by the National Bureau of Statistics on April 16, in the first quarter of this year, total sales revenue of China's catering industry totaled 1.34 trillion yuan, up 10.8 percent year-on-year. Sales revenue of catering enterprises that are above a designated size jumped 9.2 percent year-on-year to 355.1 billion yuan.

"In the first quarter, sales revenue of China's catering industry accounted for 11.2 percent of the total retail sales of consumer goods. The growth rate of the industry outpaced that of the latter by 6.1 percentage points. Given the recovery of normal production and life, and supportive policies, the catering industry has been rapidly reviving, demonstrating strong resilience and great vitality," said Yang Liu, head of the China Cuisine Association.

According to a report from the association, with the further improvement of digital infrastructure, the trend of smart devices and appliances is ubiquitous, including in supply chains, corporate management, marketing and customer service.

Another report jointly issued by China Galaxy Securities and Huibo Research showed that China's digitalization-empowered service consumption is entering the 2.0 phase. Technologies like artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality are going beyond the limitations imposed by time and space, satisfying personalized consumption demand and increasing corporate operational efficiency.

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