At 12:28 p.m. last Monday, I ordered chicken tikka masala and garlic naan through Uber Eats. Seconds later, in a small room in a Queens warehouse five miles away, a robotic arm sprung to life. It removed three cardboard containers from a refrigerator and placed them in an oven for about three minutes. Half an hour later, the order was sitting on my doorstep in a brown paper bag.
This is Better Days, one of several new businesses automating food production. Over the last six months, the company has delivered thousands of meals under different names using delivery platforms like DoorDash and Uber Eats. Unless you scroll to the bottom of its website, and click on a tab called “Our Technology” (then scroll to the bottom of that page), you wouldn’t know that its food was made by a robotic arm.
The company rebranded as Better Days earlier this month and revealed that all of its food was cooked using automation. The reason it kept that a secret: It wanted to see if anyone would notice. “It was important to have clear testing without any hype associated with the robot,” says Yegor Traiman, the company’s CEO.
In New York City, there’s nothing stopping a restaurant from secretly making food with a robotic arm. Automated restaurants are inspected like any other food business, but beyond letter grades, there are surprisingly few restrictions on robots in commercial kitchens.
None of the city’s major food delivery apps — Uber Eats, Grubhub, or Doordash — require restaurants to disclose if they automate food production, while the state’s sanitary code “does not address the use of robotics,” according to a spokesperson for the New York State Department of Health. Many items in the city’s health inspection checklist simply do not apply to restaurants without human staff.
Over the last two years, Better Days was piloted in international cities like Paris and Barcelona: It sold over 100,000 robot-made meals. The company came to New York City in May and has been operating out of a CloudKitchen in Sunnyside, Queens. The start-up from Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick rents space to delivery-only restaurants. Over two dozen businesses deliver food from the facility.
Even if the company isn’t breaking any laws, it raises questions about robotics and food production. Aside from the cost of a dish, what changes when robots cook for real people?
“It’s this feeling of being duped as more of food service becomes hidden,” says Scott Landers, co-founder of the delivery consultancy Figure 8. Restaurants like Better Days are becoming more common, he says.
The salad chain Sweetgreen opened its first automated location this year; CEO Jonathan Neman said he expected all of the company’s locations to be fully automated in five years. Chipotle CEO Steve Ells is starting a new robot-run restaurant chain in New York City next year.
The companies claim robots are more precise than humans at repetitive tasks, like slicing vegetables. By cutting labor costs, they can undercut competitors and sell food for less money: around $15 for a bowl of salmon, rice, and vegetables at Better Days, compared to $17 for a similar product at Sweetgreen.
The company says its robots can be programmed to cook almost anything: salmon, chicken, garlic naan, and more. Once a food order is placed online, they remove the items from refrigeration and place them in ovens that monitor the moisture levels and temperatures of foods.
This is the start of something bigger. Depending on how things go in Queens, Traiman wants to open 500 automated restaurants in the next five years.
At least for now, humans are a part of the equation. Better Days has a separate kitchen, staffed by humans, where meals are prepared. Staff cut vegetables, season meats, and package food orders to be delivered to Queens — where they will eventually be cooked by robots and eaten by humans.
“Everything that needs a human touch, we have done by a human chef,” Traiman says. “There is a limit to what robots can do.”