Can robots cook? Yes, says Michael Farid, MIT grad and cofounder of Boston’s new eatery Spyce. But does it taste good? Yes, says Daniel Boulud, Michelin-star chef and the culinary brains behind the Spyce menu.
As the son of a pair of engineers from Egypt, Michael Farid grew up wondering how machines were put together.
When household items broke, the soft-spoken Farid says, he and his two brothers regularly tried to fix them, often successfully.
“So I guess that was just in my nature,” says Farid, an mit graduate and cofounder of Spyce in Boston, a new kind of eatery buzzing with an unusually efficient type of food preparer—a robot.
It’s a captivating system relying on automated mechanics to channel ingredients into woks and then bowls. The fast-casual cafe in the city’s Downtown Crossing neighborhood has gained national attention for its innovations; Farid appeared on The Today Show in 2018 not long after the restaurant opened.
Farid, 28, says he spent a good amount of time in the kitchen in Dubai, where he grew up. He never tried to disassemble the family blender, but he did ponder better methods to handle the tedious task of stuffing grape leaves with meat, rice, garlic and other ingredients.
He hasn’t solved that problem. But his early idea offers some insight into why Farid grew up to be ceo of Spyce. He joined fellow mit electrical and mechanical engineering graduates Kale Rogers, Luke Schlueter and Brady Knight to found the company. They knew each other well. All were teammates on the school’s championship water polo team and members of the same fraternity.
The robot theme at Spyce followed some of Farid’s earlier adventures. At mit, for a class project, he built an electric, motorized skateboard to zip around campus. For that, he won the school’s Mechanical Engineering de Florez Award for ingenuity. He used the skateboard until it broke.
Farid studied robotics as an undergraduate and bagged third place in another robotics contest. But it wasn’t until graduate school when he was no longer on a university food plan that the idea of creating a robotic kitchen developed.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was a good, healthy, delicious and affordable food option?’ I guess you could say it kind of came out of frustration.” After more thinking, he hatched a plan to have robots produce meals efficiently and affordably. He pitched the idea to his friends. They agreed on the goal.
That was 2015, and the would-be restaurateurs—none of whom had any experience in a commercial kitchen—took a course on startups at the university’s Martin Trust Center for mit Entrepreneurship. They completed their first prototype—one of many—through mit Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator program, now known as mit delta v.
Bill Aulet, who heads the center, praises the young engineers for their idea’s spunk, and for raising more than $20 million to launch Spyce.
“They’ve progressed rapidly by getting some of the top people in the world to work with them,” says Aulet.
They received financial backing from the likes of Starbucks founder Howard Schultz and investment partner Dan Levitan. The pair run the San Francisco-based Maveron venture fund, which invests in technology-enabled, consumer-oriented businesses. The Collaborative Fund also put money in, as did famed chefs Thomas Keller, Jerome Bocuse and Gavin Kaysen.
Levitan says Farid and his team are strong.
“In the early stages of a company, nothing matters more than the people,” he says. “Michael and his cofounders are super smart, highly motivated and, as we like to say, unapologetically non normal.”
Rogers, one of those cofounders, says he has been eating with Farid since their freshmen days during preseason training for the water polo team. Like Farid, Rogers spent time cooking with his mother growing up in Newberg, Oregon.
Rogers wrote the first wok temperature-control feedback loop in the kitchen and “hacked a window air conditioner to be a refrigerator for our first real prototype.”
At Spyce, after customers place their orders on electronic tablets, several “modules” kick into action. The first one is a box-like runner. It scoots along a line of silos behind a glass window and collects different ingredients for the dishes, including sweet potatoes, peas, chiles, tomatoes, peppers and kale, plus chicken, salmon and sauces. (They’re cut up offsite by real people in a commissary kitchen that contracts with casual restaurants.)
The metallic, orange-colored runner then zips to one of seven stations on the line and drops the selections into one of seven woks heated to 450 degrees. The woks rotate, mixing and cooking the sizzling ingredients within three minutes, filling the restaurant with aromas of cumin, coriander, grilled chicken and other mouth-watering smells.
The individual woks then tilt to drop the food into a bowl, which swivels out of the way and is collected by a real person who adds condiments such as cilantro, mint, sesame seeds, almonds, feta cheese and cucumber salad. Next, the wok dips down into a sink to be spray-washed and sanitized. It then rotates up, ready for the next dish.
“Keep in mind that the runner is always fetching the next meal, and there are seven woks running,” says Farid. “There is a lot happening.”
Inventors drilled the robot through many iterations before the process was perfected. It never acted up and threw food across the kitchen, but it did create plenty of messes.
“We spent a lot of time cleaning up after our failed experiments,” Farid admits.
The most embarrassing incident occurred when a potential backer checked out the first prototype. It performed flawlessly until the very end, when the inventors realized, much to their dismay, no bowl was in place to receive the meal.
The food spilled all over the counter.
Says Farid: “That person did not invest.”
But the young entrepreneurs learned from the experience and installed a sensor to alert them when bowls needed to be replaced.
Spyce isn’t the only restaurant experimenting with robotics. In San Francisco, hamburger joint Creator uses a machine with numerous sensors and actuator mechanisms to produce burgers.
And to the south in Mountain View—part of Silicon Valley—the pizza joint Zume can reportedly produce a pie in 22 seconds with the aid of robots named Giorgio, Pepe and Bruno.
Farid says people often ask what’s the runner’s name, but he says they have no plans to give it a moniker. And while it occasionally has hiccups and needs to be maintained, he says it runs well. It never calls in sick, is always on time and never complains.
“I’d rather you know the names of the staff than the runner,” he says. “I’m proud to say we get lots of compliments on our customer service.”
As the robot handles repetitive tasks, staffers can focus on interacting with customers, he says.
“In your typical fast-casual restaurant,” notes Farid, “most of the workers are in the kitchen. We always try to have someone out by the ordering kiosks helping people place their orders and answering questions.”
The robot also helps solve what Farid says is the difficult problem of finding enough restaurant workers in Boston, where the unemployment rate in June was at three percent, well below the national figure of 3.6 percent, according to state figures. And the robot saves kitchen space, which helped in finding a location in expensive Boston.
In the coming years, Farid says he sees more automation for the restaurant world. He’s not worried that traditional restaurants will disappear though.
“Dining out is an intrinsic part of many cultures and will continue to flourish as chefs create the next food trend that catches the hearts and minds of consumers,” says Farid.
“In the area of quick service, though, where the point is to feed people affordable meals nourishingly, there will be more technological innovation. It may not be as fast as some have predicted, but we’ll see more restaurants adapt and use new techniques to make food service more efficient.”
Spyce has one nod to Arab cuisine on its menu: a Lebanese bowl made of roasted chicken, lentils, white mushrooms, cherry and sun-dried tomatoes, fresh dill, tahini, feta and cucumber salad. Other choices include Korean, Thai, Indian, Latin and pasta dishes, all served in compostable bowls.
Most of the bowls have a rice base, but diners can order the Lebanese selection with freekeh, a wheat grain that Farid says has been a staple in Middle Eastern diets for centuries. Each bowl starts at $7.50, which is less than nearby restaurants with similar offerings. Patrons can add proteins at extra cost.
Farid credits his mother for developing his interest in food.
“My mom was a great cook,” he says. “She made me care about the food she was serving me and my brothers.”
Farid says he and his partners continue to finesse the menu.
“The vision we have for it starts with it being globally inspired because there are flavors to be celebrated from around the world. We’re working on a couple of new Middle Eastern-inspired dishes, though nothing specifically from Egypt.”
Though Farid and his colleagues figured they had a handle on robotics, early on they realized they needed help with recipes. On a whim and a prayer they emailed Michelin-star chef Daniel Boulud, who runs restaurants in New York, Boston and around the globe.
To their surprise, Boulud was intrigued. He visited and later signed on as culinary director. Sam Benson, of Café Boulud in New York, is the executive chef for Spyce.
When I stop by Spyce, I choose the Lebanese bowl because I have never tried freekeh. I find it nutty and tasty, as is the entire dish. A side of cucumber salad proves so satisfying I ask employee Autumn Lopez for another scoop. She provides it with a smile.
Chatting with Farid, I tell him I doubt whether a robot would have been so obliging.
“Exactly!” he responds.
Though some people who are new to Spyce might expect a human-free experience, the restaurant has five people working when I visit again and sample a Korean bowl with salmon. One employee is helping customers at the kiosk tablet, while three garnishers keep busy behind the counter.
It’s lunch time, and the restaurant’s 15 seats are full. Soon there is a standing-room-only crowd. A supervisor in checkered tennis shoes and a sports coat keeps things flowing. Farid says most customers take their bowls to go.
So what does Farid’s mother think of Spyce?
“She’s thrilled and thinks the restaurant is awesome,” says Farid, who cooks with her in his own kitchen when she visits. “She’s been very supportive since it started.”
Farid says he and his fellow Spyce Boys, as they were jokingly dubbed at mit, are planning to launch another restaurant soon using similar technology.
And as for using a robot to wrap ingredients in grape leaves? Farid says his mother still chides him about it, and the solution remains a wok in progress.