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Automated food kiosks are the flavour of the season in offices

Employees following hybrid work protocols in India are set to encounter automated food kiosks at some office cafeterias.  (Photo: Mint)
Employees following hybrid work protocols in India are set to encounter automated food kiosks at some office cafeterias.  (Photo: Mint)

Summary

Companies in India are creating automated cafeterias, where machines will make snacks and simple food based on pre-fed ingredients. All you need to do is press a few buttons: the pre-fed ingredients are transferred to a cooking chamber, mixed and cooked automatically

NEW DELHI : Covid-19 protocols prompted Beijing Winter Olympics bosses to introduce automated machines to cook and deliver food to guests without any human intervention. Now, employees following hybrid work protocols in India are set to encounter similar automated machines at their office cafeterias.

The machines employed in Beijing could cook anything from noodles to hamburgers as long as the ingredients were provided in advance.

In much the same way, companies in India are creating automated cafeterias, where machines will make snacks and simple food based on pre-fed ingredients.

Instead of queuing up before the cafeteria manager, employees will encounter food kiosks that use internet of things (IoT) sensors to monitor the food being prepared and artificial intelligence to ensure quality.

All you need to do is press a few buttons: the pre-fed ingredients are transferred to a cooking chamber, mixed and cooked automatically.

Chennai-based cafeteria management company CafeXT hopes to deploy 30-40 such kiosks this year, supplied by Bengaluru-based robotics firm Xook.

CafeXT's clients include several large enterprises and IT firms. The cafeteria management company said it would deploy these kiosks at offices in Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai.

“Post-pandemic, our clients are more conscious about hygiene and consistent availability of services than ever before. Corporate employees also care about their health and love international dishes," said Navas Khan, director of Dosa Village Pvt. Ltd, the parent company of CafeXT.

Many firms have shut down and discontinued cafeteria contracts in the past two years, as offices closed or operated with skeletal staff. Now, hygiene is “one of the top reasons" for deploying these automated food machines, said Ashutosh Sharma, vice-president and research director at Forrester Research. He likened these machines to gyms and pool tables, which add “the cool quotient" to a workplace.

To be sure, automated food machines aren’t particularly new in India. Tea chain Chaayos deployed robots called “Chai Monks" in its stores after the first lockdowns in 2020. At the time, they provided contactless dining solutions, where users could place an order on the app, and the robot would prepare the tea without human touch.

In Xook’s robots, too, customers scan a QR code and order from an app. However, these machines are designed for offices, cafeterias and apartment complexes, taking up only 10 sq. ft of space, according to the company. CafeXT said it is running pilots in various places.

The IoT cameras monitor the ingredient compartments and inform human operators when they’re running low. The company’s chief executive, Rajagopal Natarajan, said the firm trained deep learning algorithms using images of food items at different stages of preparation. This allows the cameras to help discern quality as well.

According to Ratul Roy, co-founder and chief technology officer of Xook, the automated food kiosks can prepare over 25 dishes, including salads and snack bowls, in five cuisines. The company also has a team of chefs who are expanding the recipes the robots can manage. At the moment, only foods items like salads and snack bowls are available.

Natarajan said Xook wouldn’t charge its customers up-front payments for the kiosks. Instead, companies will be charged based on the food consumed by workers from the machine in an ‘as-a-service’ model.

A food bowl by Xook will start at 70 and go up to 200, and the company is in talks with firms in Bengaluru and Singapore for direct installations as well.

Xook isn’t the only such company. Euphotic Labs, a Bengaluru-based firm, is planning to deploy a robotic food machine called Nosh to companies. Its co-founder, Yatin Varachhia, said it has been working with companies to deploy these in offices using pay-per-use models.

Industry stakeholders, however, said food automation is still in its infancy. Sharma noted that the speed with which it can prepare a meal is still slow, and food choices are limited but will improve over time.

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