Just as within the retail environment, general hygiene has become a major concern for both customers and staff. So what new technologies exist to maximise health and safety within the hospitality sector?
It’s almost hard to believe now, but back in February the British restaurant industry was showing tentative signs of growth. But by March visits to out-of-home outlets had dropped by 29% YOY. While many businesses pivoted quickly to provide takeaway services, recovery post-coronavirus will be a long process. Success will mean a combination of continued deliveries, more deals and offers, and technology.
The ‘new normal’ imposed by COVID-19 on every industry in the last few months has been a catalyst for many to look at where automation is possible and commercially viable. Automation of activities in the hospitality industry, particularly back of house, will now be driven not only by the desire to automate repetitive tasks, but to ensure safety.
Cambridge Consultants helps its clients identify, create and launch breakthrough products and services. It has developed an automation system that lowers human handling of food trays in commercial kitchens.
It says the result is an entirely new kitchen cleaning procedure whereby a food tray can be processed every six seconds. ‘Turbo Clean’ was trained using images of thousands of trays with every conceivable combination of messy crockery. The machine not only recognises items and waste on each tray in milliseconds, but can also classify items such as bowls, plates, glasses and cutlery.
Nathan Wrench, head of sustainability innovation, Cambridge Consultants, said: “COVID-19 has highlighted the need to reduce touchpoints in everyday situations. Nowhere is this need more acute than in the hospitality industry which is typified by high-touch situations and crowded working environments. Staff coming into close proximity with customers and touched items are understandably nervous; this is where automation can help.”
While some are addressing this issue by making all high-touch items disposable, this is not a sustainable solution; businesses need to find other ways to reduce human handling of items.
Wrench adds: “Turbo Clean was conceived as a solution to automate one of the least-loved jobs in the kitchen; clearing trays and loading the dishwasher. In today’s world reducing the number of touchpoints that staff encounter is not just desirable but could be hygienically essential. In this case, customers would potentially be placing trays on a conveyor and back of house staff would only need to touch trays, cutlery and crockery after they have been through the washer.”
Although Covid-19 is not known to be transmitted through food, when lockdown measures have been lifted completely, the foodservice industry is likely to have a renewed interest in technology to improve food hygiene and boost consumer confidence.
The use of food preparation robots, which lower the risk of cross-contamination of different ingredients, may be incorporated into businesses’ food hygiene strategies moving forward.
Launched in 2018, robotics start-up Karakuri specialises in off-the-shelf food preparation robots, with its two models designed to dispense precise quantities of ingredients and rapidly produce customisable meals.
Not only does the use of robotics have the potential to alleviate hygiene concerns, it may also have long-term economic benefits. Karakuri’s use of machine sensing enables businesses to understand the precise quantities of ingredients used in each meal, helping reduce food waste and cut costs.
The business has received attention from some high-profile industry names, with investors including online supermarket Ocado, and Heston Blumenthal acting as one of the company’s board advisors.
Of course, robotics is not intended to replace human kitchen workers, especially at a time when many face job insecurity, but it may have a greater role to play in food preparation once the pandemic has eased.
So how will all this change the experience of eating out? Next time we explore other new technologies helping consumers dine out in style and safety.