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Automatic choice

The installation of foodservice robotics serving fresh personalised meals to Ocado staff is the result of a coordinated effort between food robotics start up Karakuri and Atalian Servest. Six months into the project we discover how it’s going

The disruption of COVID and the aftermath of Brexit has led to a recruitment and retention crisis within the hospitality and foodservice sector. Figures from consultancy CGA suggest that that one in six (16 per cent) hospitality jobs now remain vacant. For those in contract catering there are the additional challenges of fulfilling the food service needs of a hybrid workforce, where regular demand patterns are no longer guaranteed. This, in turn makes it more difficult to reduce food waste.

Given these challenges, the news last autumn of a revolutionary new foodservice offering at Ocado’s headquarters which aims to address these issues caused quite a stir in the FM sector. Semblr, the world’s leading foodservice robot has been installed to serve fresh, personalised lunches to the 4,000 employees at Ocado’s head office. It’s the result of a partnership between facilities management services company Atalian Servest and Karakuri, a world-leading food robotics start up.

Karakuri’s CEO and Co-Founder Barney Wragg, a leading Technologist and Digital Strategist began looking into foodservice automation in 2017, after restaurant owning friends asked him for advice.

He recalls: “I was shocked at how labour and people intensive running a restaurant or foodservice operation was, and being an engineer with a technical background I was surprised how little data there was to help run those businesses. I wondered if we could solve some of the pressure points in information on food kitchens and preparation by applying the same sort of automation used in other industries. When you start to think about electronics manufacturing or automotive they’ve gone from the very basic Henry Ford production line to automated systems.

“In 2018 we started to research the art of the possible. With the help of the Founders Factory investment incubator we looked at different tasks within the hospitality sector, for instance, those operating central London ‘grab and go’ type stores that service a growing trend for healthier offerings. That set us off on looking at how we might create a business that would handle, serve and manipulate food from the kitchen.”

Ocado, which is already involved in all aspects of the food industry, from vertical farming through to home delivery and grocery, expressed an interest in investing in the business. In 2019 they led a seed investment round and as part of their investment were keen to have a prototype system installed.

Says Wragg: “Ocado see a use for automation in a multitude of places, from grab and go through to FM and corporate catering, and from ordering a fully finished meal or the components of a meal further down the line. They wanted one of our first machines to be installed in their place of work as a demonstrator.”

About Sarah OBeirne

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