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Robots are coming to a burger joint near you

  • A burger-flipping robot called Flippy will be at work in CaliBurger restaurants by early 2018.
  • Miso Robotics, the inventor of Flippy, has raised $3.1 million in Series A venture funding.
  • Patent services firm Acacia Research, CaliBurger and Match Robotics VC are investors.

Grilling burgers may be fun on the Fourth of July, but less so if hot grease is your daily grind.

Enter Miso Robotics. The southern California start-up has built a robotic "kitchen assistant" called Flippy to do the hot, greasy and repetitive work of a fry cook. Flippy employs machine learning and computer vision to identify patties on a grill, track them as they cook, flip and then place them on a bun when they're done.

Miso is part of a budding kitchen automation industry. Its peers include Zume Pizza, Cafe X, Makr Shakr, Frobot and Sally, which are developing robots to help commercial kitchens churn out pizzas, lattes, cocktails, frozen yogurt, and salads.

In a recent CNBC interview, Yum Brands CEO Greg Creed predicted robots would replace fast food workers by the mid-2020s. It's not as if workers love those jobs.

Employee turnover in the restaurants and accommodations sector was 73 percent in 2016, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fry cooks, the people who flip burgers (or fillets) all day at a hot grill, move on from the job faster than others in the field.

Rather than build a robot from the ground up, Miso integrates the best of available components on the market, including robotic arms, sensors and cameras. It develops proprietary control software to enable the robots to work as cooking assistants in complex environments right alongside humans, said CEO David Zito.

"We take into account all of our customers' needs for everything from food safety to maximum uptime," he said. "Today our software allows robots to work at a grill, doing some of the nasty and dangerous work that people don't want to do all day. But these systems can be adapted so that robots can work, say, standing in front of a fryer or chopping onions. These are all areas of high turnover, especially for quick service restaurants."

Flippy uses sensors and cameras to see the food it is cooking and monitor temperature.
Flippy uses sensors and cameras to see the food it is cooking and monitor temperature.

Miso Robotics recently raised $3.1 million in a funding round led by patent services firm Acacia Research, a relatively new fund called Match Robotics VC, and earlier investors including the restaurant chain CaliBurger.

The company will use the capital to produce its first commercial Flippy units. It expects to roll Flippy out, starting at the Los Angeles CaliBurger, in the first quarter of 2018, Zito said. Along with its investment, Acacia will provide the start-up with patent and intellectual property-related services, helping Miso Robotics prepare for global expansion.

"I see robotics in the kitchen as kind of an extension of going from the open flame to the oven," said Rob Stewart, Acacia's president, in an interview. "It's next-level efficiency,"

What does this mean for the industry's 2.3 million cooks?

"Like the electronic spreadsheet did for accountants, this will cause the jobs to go elsewhere," Stewart said. "But there will be new hospitality and culinary jobs we have yet to imagine. And those will be jobs where people will get paid a higher wage, and where they'll want to stay long-term."