The future of fast-food will include robots: former Sonic CEO

It’s only logical that in life after COVID-19 and considering the fast-paced nature of tech innovation, the restaurant industry will look to robots to help power everything from cooking lines to cleaning to the ordering process.

Doing so would go a long way to reducing the spread of germs while also cutting labor costs (one of the costliest line items for a restaurant).

“The application of robots will be something that will grow in the economy generally. The chances it will occur in the restaurant industry is excellent just like it will occur across other industries,” said Sonic Drive-In’s former CEO Clifford Hudson on Yahoo Finance’s The First Trade.

Hudson spent 35 years at Sonic, 23 of them being as CEO. He is credited with adding more than 2,000 new Sonic locations and billions of dollars in sales over his tenure. Hudson — out with a new book called “Master of None: How a Jack of All Trades Can Still Reach the Top” — left Sonic in early 2019 following the $2.3 billion sale to restaurant conglomerate Inspire Brands.

Continued Hudson, “I suppose the variation that could play out is to just go back to my experience at Sonic. All the food is made to order and there is an opportunity to customize by customer. In that circumstance, the same robot application could occur but the customization is going to make it a little bit more personalized and probably require a little bit of individual effort.”

By and large, the use of robots (besides touchscreen ordering systems) in restaurants remains on the fringes. The most prominent robot in fast-food is known as Flippy made by Miso Robotics. As the name would suggest, Flippy is a long mechanical arm that automatically flips burgers or fries.

White Castle became the first nationwide food chain in mid-July to say it will test Flippy. The test is slated to start at one White Castle this fall, where Flippy will be used to man the french fry frying station.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 14:  White Castle employees cook their slider burgers before delivering them at the U.S. Capitol to celebrate the company's 90th anniversary with a "Castles at the Capitol" event June 14, 2011 in Washington, DC. Representatives of the Columbus, Ohio-based company hand-delivered their slider burgers to waiting congressional employees during their lunch hour.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
White Castle employees cook their slider burgers. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

While White Castle works with Flippy to change its fry-serving game, other restaurant chains are looking down a different route post-pandemic. Think either smaller locations designed to just handle mobile orders or larger locations that put the drive-thru at the center of it all.

For instance, Burger King parent company Restaurant Brands International recently unveiled a prototype restaurant with no indoor dining. You can either grab your burger and fries at the window or go through the drive-thru and park the car under a canopy (sort of like Hudson’s former employer Sonic).

Shake Shack also took the wraps off its restaurant of the future this past summer. You can order and pay on the Shake Shack app and pick up the food at a drive-thru window or a small window.

Brian Sozzi is an editor-at-large and co-anchor of The First Trade at Yahoo Finance. Follow Sozzi on Twitter @BrianSozzi and on LinkedIn.

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