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Restaurant Roundup: Robots Take Over Major Casual Dining Chains

Chili’s Grill & Bar, the Brinker International-owned casual dining giant with over 1,600 restaurants across 29 countries, is looking to mitigate its front-of-house labor challenges with the use of a robot that serves food, beverages and buses tables at 10 of its restaurants.

On Thursday (Oct. 21), Nicole Cipani, instructional designer at Brinker International, shared the news in a LinkedIn post spotted by The Spoon. The server robot is dubbed “Rita” and was created by California-based restaurant and hospitality technology company Bear Robotics.

“Well ladies and gents … from coast to coast, Rita is officially live in 10 restaurants!” Cipani wrote.

As Chili’s is testing out automated solutions for its front-of-house operations, Inspire Brands-owned sports bar chain Buffalo Wild Wings, which has more than 1,200 restaurants across nine countries, is looking into new ways to automate its kitchens.

On Thursday (Oct. 21), California-based restaurant automation company Miso Robotics announced that the bar chain had begun testing out the tech company’s robotic chicken wing fryer, Flippy Wings, at Inspire Brands’ Innovation Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

“Technology is making a fundamental impact on the end-to-end restaurant operational model,” Paul Brown, CEO of Inspire Brands, said in a statement. “Intelligent automation including AI and robotics will not only transform how we communicate with and take orders from our guests but also how we prepare and serve food to those guests.”

The robot will soon be installed at Inspire Brands’ Alliance Kitchen ghost kitchens, with plans to come to a consumer-facing Buffalo Wild Wings location in 2022. Miso Robotics states that its research shows that the robot increases food production speeds by 10% to 20%.

“I’d say partially automated or semi-automated food production — that’s going to be the norm within five to 10 years, no doubt,” Stephen Klein, co-founder and CEO of Hyphen, a tech company that launched the first robotic makeline over the summer, told PYMNTS in an interview. “If you’re ordering from your phone, and the only interaction you’re having with the restaurant is through that digital device, it really doesn’t matter who’s making your food, as long as it’s fresh, fast and consistent.”

Read more: Hyphen’s Restaurant Robotics Fend Off Delivery Giants

Gopuff Competes With DoorDash With New Pizza Launch

Continuing its effort to deliver freshly-cooked food on demand, Philadelphia-based “instant needs” delivery service Gopuff announced Thursday (Oct. 21) that it has launched a line of truffle-infused pizzas in partnership with luxury pantry staples brand TRUFF. With this move into higher-end foods, Gopuff is coming into further competition with food delivery service rivals.

Additionally, Gopuff has an advantage over these competitors, as it has the ability to prepare meals in-house through its Gopuff Kitchen. This allows the company greater control of the economics, and circumvents most of the financial tug-of-war that leading restaurant aggregators engage in with merchants every day.

“We’re excited to collaborate with TRUFF to bring three brand-new pizzas to life through Gopuff Kitchen,” Max Crowley, vice president of business expansion at Gopuff, said in a statement. “By bringing together Gopuff’s unmatched delivery experience and TRUFF’s award winning flavors, we’re delivering something truly exciting to people across the U.S. Nowhere else can you get such unique flavors at your doorstep in minutes.”

The announcement comes just days after Gopuff’s New York City launch.

San Francisco In-N-Out Closed for Failing to Check for Proof of Vax

As restaurants’ continue to face challenges while enforcing COVID-19 precautions, such as checking for proof of vaccination, law enforcement appears to be cracking down. In San Francisco, one of California’s 358-unit quick service burger chain In-N-Out locations was temporarily shut down by the city’s Department of Public Health for failing to check for vaccinations, ABC7 News reported Wednesday (Oct. 20).

The restaurant has since reopened, but only for takeout orders.

“We refuse to become the vaccination police for any government,” the San Francisco In-N-Out Burger said in a statement. “We fiercely disagree with any government dictate that forces a private company to discriminate against customers who choose to patronize their business. This is clear governmental overreach and is intrusive, improper, and offensive.”

The San Francisco Department of Public Health responded to the restaurant’s comment, saying that “vaccination is particularly important in a public indoor setting where groups of people are gathering and removing their masks, factors that make it easier for the virus to spread.”

BJ’s Restaurants Off-Prem Sales Remain Elevated, Boosted by Digital Investments

The shift to delivery and pickup orders is sticking. On a call with analysts Thursday (Oct. 21), Tom Houdek, the chief financial officer of California-based casual dining chain BJ’s Restaurants, noted that off-premises sales remain roughly double what they were in 2019.

BJ’s Restaurants has 212 restaurants in 29 states, and the company intends to continue to drive off-premise sales through online pickup ordering, through third-party delivery apps, and by developing a catering business as the pre-ordering space rapidly digitizes.

Read more: As Takeout and Delivery Soar, Catering Businesses Have Been Left Behind in the Digital Shift

“We have invested in productivity and technology initiatives so that we can execute on what we internally call the gold standard level of execution,” Greg Levin, the company’s president and CEO, said on the call. “This includes refined marketing and guest loyalty programs, internally-developed technology that gives us ability to rapidly iterate compared to our peers, including our own internally-developed app and QR code-linked digital menu.”

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