More than half a million people work as dishwashers in the United States today, according to the most recent data from the Department of Labor. But that's not nearly enough hands to keep cookware clean in the 660,755 establishments counted by the 2018 NPD Group Restaurant Consensus.
Enter Dishcraft, a start-up building a robotic dishwasher for commercial kitchens.
CEO and founder Linda Pouliot said that to figure out what tech could really do to help, she and CTO Paul Birkmeyer went to restaurants of every kind, volunteering to wash their dishes. Restaurateurs and managers were more than welcoming.
The co-founders discovered that work in the dish room is the same as it has been for decades — repetitive, frantic and physically punishing.
In a typical setup, it's easy for a dishwasher to break a dish, get burned or slip and fall on the wet floor, Birkmeyer noticed. And at work it's tempting for dishwashers to just put a rubber band on the overhead sprayers to keep hot water running all day, so they won't have to keep reaching and grasping. Those conditions drive attrition.
"We found the problem is universal. It didn't matter if you were the French Laundry, a hospital cafeteria or Chili's; everyone is having a hard time hiring dishwashers," Pouliot said.
Some restaurants turn to disposables or just deal with the expense of constant recruiting. But Dishcraft wants to give them a more sustainable, less costly option.
Dishcraft's system uses four main elements: a dish drop, robotic dishwasher, rolling racks and the restaurant's already-installed sanitizing machine.
At the dish drop, diners or bussers place dirty bowls and plates into a container that stacks and keeps track of them. When a rack is full, a light calls for a dish-room worker to roll it over to the robotic dishwasher, which loads them up automatically.
The washer picks up the plates and bowls with a magnet, cleans them with a rubber scraping wheel and rinses them with gray water (recycled water safe for cleaning purposes). Dishcraft's robotic washer uses cameras, sensors and "dirt identification algorithms" to find and clean every last spot of food, even those that would be invisible to the naked eye.
Once they are washed, the machine stacks the plates and bowls into racks. A worker then places those racks in a sanitizer, standard equipment already used in commercial kitchens today. The sanitizer heats up the dishes, killing any remaining germs.
Restaurants love the system because "Robots do not call off, robots don't take breaks, and robots do not take vacation," Pouliot said.
While Dishcraft is focused on installations in high-volume cafeterias today, it has a way to help smaller restaurants, too.
According to Steve Anderson, founder of Baseline Ventures and early investor in Dishcraft, the company will swap clean cookware for dirty at select restaurants at the end of each meal or day, much like a laundry service.
Dishcraft systems work only with the plates and bowls that the company makes and sells today. They are hard to break, easy to transport and have metal pieces affixed to the bottom so they are easily grasped by the robotic dishwasher.
Eventually, Dishcraft wants to develop systems that can handle anything that needs cleaning in the kitchen. But about more than half of a dishwasher's time is spent cleaning the plates and bowls, said Pouliot, so addressing these first was a priority.
At times Dishcraft's lab has been full of investors, computer science Ph.D.'s and robotics engineers, all scrubbing plates for customers. Washing dishes is mandatory for new hires, the CEO said, and always will be. "They need to understand the complexity of the work and also develop empathy for the customers," she said. Investors aren't required to do the dishes, but so far all of them have, she added.
Dishcraft has raised $25 million in venture funding to date, including from early-stage backers First Round Capital, Baseline Ventures and Lemnos.
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