Robot Servers, Icee Gets Into The Hard Liquor Business, Plant-Based Chicken Is Good & Other Observations From The National Restaurant Association Trade Show

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The Super Bowl of Restaurant Trade Shows, the 2022 National Restaurant Association Show wrapped up Tuesday in Chicago and the big news this year had to be the evolution of robots in the quest to solve staffing issues plaguing the foodservice industry.

As part of my job to provide analysis of pop culture, I made the trip with my wife whose job is to design a booth for her employer who is in the food safety systems business. Her employer sells label printers that restaurants use in a variety of different functions.

A big thank you goes out to my wife’s employer for coming through with a badge to get me into this exclusive event that the general public can’t attend. This is for restaurant owners, chefs, carryout owners, big national chain management, etc.

At this point in my career, I consider this trade show to be more interesting than attending Radio Row at the Super Bowl. Seriously. I’ve said it a hundred times — NRA is Costco Sample Saturday on the craziest PEDs ARod ever used during his illustrious career.

It’s that good.

*Disclaimer: I know what you’re thinking…this is a sponsored post. IT IS NOT a sponsored post. Not a single company or product I’m about to mention paid me a dollar or even knows who I am. I walked over 20,000 steps Sunday around McCormick Place to see what the future of restaurants and the food industry looks like. I’m 100% not on a Name, Image, Likeness deal. This is just old-school observations with zero agenda or interest in any company mentioned. 

Let’s start with general observations from NRA 2022:

Robots are here and there’s no going back

Six years ago I attended the NRA show with my wife and people stood there in awe as a robot flipped fries in a makeshift fast-food kitchen. Jack in the Box is now using Flippy, a version of what I saw six years ago, in some of its stores.

With fast-food chains — Checkers & Rally’s Inc. CEO said in February that stores were preparing to work shifts with as few as three employees — facing a massive worker shortage and no light at the end of the tunnel, robots are here to pick up the slack and the robots are quickly evolving to do jobs other than dumping french fry buckets.

Bear Robotics out of Redwood City, CA stood out at NRA with its Servi robot that is programmed to deliver food to tables and return dirty dishes to the kitchen. Customers order meals via an iPad positioned on the table and Servi does the rest. It can deliver drinks and then bring the food when it’s ready to roll out of the kitchen.

According to Bear Robotics’ website, Servi has already been deployed to the Marriott Fort Lauderdale airport location all the way down to a Denny’s in Montebello, California.

They’re coming, folks. It’s just a matter of time before the days of a server screwing up your order and giving you an attitude are over. Whether it’s Servi or another version of a robot server, there’s no going back as the future of restaurant survival will depend on these robots.

Take a Buffalo Wild Wings, for example. What’s stopping BWW from having customers order via their phones, an alert is sent to the customer’s phone telling them the order is being processed and their robot will be on the way with drinks and food?

It won’t be long.

No sick days. No quitting because the robot found a better paying restaurant job. No attitude problems. Just continuous work.

Robot food server Servi
Servi, the food server robot from Bear Robotics, shows off just how much food it can deliver to a table / Joe Kinsey

At the Richtech Robotics booth, it was more of the same. Robots zooming around showing off their skills and something that immediately caught me eye — a robot food delivery dog. A Richtech representative told me that their robot dog doesn’t just deliver food to first-floor dwellings. It can even climb stairs to deliver a food order.

Nala Robotics’ niche is its AI robot that can cook a food dish, even shaking in the appropriate seasoning. Nala says its “World’s first fully automated restaurant” will allow for 24/7 operations and no more need to close on holidays or late hours when it’s impossible to find workers.

Are you tired of cold DoorDash? Introducing food delivery lockers

I’m not going to spend much time referencing the different companies that are selling food delivery lockers. Just know that it appears to be a crowded space. The idea is simple: restaurants complete a food-delivery order and shove it into the locker to keep it warm. The delivery person shows up, scans a barcode, the door unlocks and the person takes out the food bag.

Simple idea.

And a solution to a problem that is currently being solved at Chipotles and other fast casuals by placing bags on a shelf and hoping people grab the right order.

Delivery food lockers are coming on the scene fast.

Plant-based food is here and more offerings are coming very soon

If there’s no stopping the robot wave that’s coming, you’re definitely not going to see plant-based foods disappear anytime soon. TiNDLE was the big winner at NRA with its plant-based chicken sandwich that I tried and actually liked.

Again, THIS IS NOT SPONSORED. I DO NOT KNOW A SINGLE SOUL AT TiNDLE and they didn’t slide into my email inbox.

The sandwich is really good. I’d need to have like five more to pinpoint exactly which chicken sandwich it mirrors, but I can confidently say it’s good. How does TiNDLE get its plant-based chicken sandwich to taste like that? I don’t know, but it’s a hit. My wife, who eats her fair share of chicken sandwiches agreed. We’d buy these.

Currently, TiNDLE chicken sandwiches are being sold in New York City, Philadelphia, Miami, multiple locations in Texas, and a few locations in California.

Again, they’re coming it’s just a matter of time. I apologize for not getting a photo of the sample. It went down fast.

• Besides TiNDLE’s chicken sandwich, the NRA show featured Beyond Meat and a company that I saw, but didn’t try because we ran out of time, that is selling plant-based tuna.

• My food rankings approximately two hours into our walk around McCormick:

• I know this is going to sound like lunacy, but I would have to move TiNDLE into the No. 2 slot. Plant-based fake chicken shouldn’t taste that good. Oreo popcorn is great, but it’s a huge sticky mess.

Oreo popcorn at the 2022 National Restaurant Association Show
Oreo popcorn at the 2022 National Restaurant Association Show / Joe Kinsey

• Coca-Cola made a huge push this year with its Icee machines including the news that the company will start selling a blueberry vanilla flavor in the lower 48 states. An Icee rep told me that blueberry vanilla is the No. 1 selling flavor in Hawaii. Now it’s coming to the rest of the United States.

I had a sample of the blueberry vanilla and while it was good, I’m just not sure mainland U.S. is going to go nuts for the flavor combination when it is so programmed to love the Coke or cherry flavor. That said, I also tested the Fresca strawberry Icee and it was tremendous.

While we’re talking Icee, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the Jack & Coke Icee machine. It’s a home run. Put one in every bar across the U.S. Women will drink more Jack & Cokes than in the last 10 years combined.

Quick hitters:

• If a robot dog isn’t available to deliver your meal, how about delivery via the Dometic Delibox attached to the back of what looks like an electric moped. Never leave home again! Sit inside, binge watch 800 hours of TV shows, crush 4-star Thai food, get late-night Taco Bell.

Seriously, it’s becoming too convenient to just sit at home. Bring on the robot servers at restaurants and maybe one worker to chat with.

• The Greek god urinal display wins an award for keeping it simple, yet causing people to stop and take notice. Nothing gets a good chuckle like a statue taking a leak into a urinal. Instant photo op.

• The craziest thing I saw besides robots delivering food to tables had to be the woman getting a salt shaker tattoo. That should be an interesting conversation piece down the road at a backyard barbeque.

Written by Joe Kinsey

Joe Kinsey is the Senior Director of Content of OutKick and the editor of the Morning Screencaps column that examines a variety of stories taking place in real America.

Kinsey is also the founder of OutKick’s Thursday Night Mowing League, America’s largest virtual mowing league.

Kinsey graduated from University of Toledo.

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