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Five years ago, in 2017, when Ajay Sunkara, a serial entrepreneur and owner of multiple breweries and manufacturing companies, visited one of his outlets, Khajuraho, located in Hyderabad, he noticed that their fully-automated facility was producing drinks consistent in taste and smoothness, irrespective of batch change.
However, the same was not the case with food, which oscillated between a hit and a miss, too salty or overtly spicy, all depending on the chief’s temperament. There was no consistency.
That is when he thought of an idea – ‘if beer can be made using machines and are perfectly consistent, why not food?’
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A couple of months later, he returned to the US and shared his idea with friends. They instantly loved it. One of them – Vijay Kodali – even ended up becoming the CTO of the company. That was the start of NALA Robotics.
Cut to present, the company has set up its first fully-automated restaurant in Chicago, alongside the launch of various products, including Nala Chef, Pizzaiola, The Wingman, and others. The company currently focuses on providing back of the restaurant operations. That includes kitchen operations, food preparations, delivery, etc. Interestingly, it has built everything from scratch and in-house, including the technology capabilities and fabrications.
Last month, at the Global AI Summit 2022, Riyadh, the company signed a partnership agreement with Saudi Excellence Company to develop, market, and deliver autonomous food services to Saudi Arabia as part of its global expansion plans.
At the event, Analytics India Magazine caught up with Sunkara, where he spoke about his company’s plans, and opportunities in India, alongwith challenges, solutions, cost estimations, RoI, and more.
Interestingly, while we were both conversing, their robots were busy serving Saudi Coffee on the sideline.
Robot makes biryani
Sharing the details of their restaurant in Chicago, Illinois, Sunkara said their restaurant serves Indian cuisine. “When we started the project, we decided to take the most complicated dish – the biryani – for it has multiple ingredients and involves numerous processes,” he added, saying that their Nala Chef robot now makes awesome biryani.
Since then, they have been developing add-ons to it. “Right now, we serve Indian tiffins, including idly, dose, pongal, vada, and others,” said Sunkara.
How it works
He said that the way the system works is, the user has to define the menu and code the recipe into the database. For instance, if you want the robot to make fried rice, you will have to specify the ingredients, saying 200 grams of rice, 10 grams of onions, 5 grams of salt, etc. Once all the details have been entered, the machine will make it, and make it right every time.
NALA Robotics not only offers personalised solutions to restaurants and customers but also helps in minimising wastage of food, and eliminates cross-contamination, as it follows a thorough clearing process cycle, ensuring cleanliness and hygiene at all times.
“For instance, if you are ordering biryani, and you feel it is too spicy – you can give feedback, saying that it is too spicy. So, next time you order the food again, it checks your data, makes necessary adjustments, tones down the spices a little bit, and gives you a more customised food,” explained Sunkara. This also gives customers more control over what they want to eat and how much they want to eat, based on their diet type, including vegetarian, vegan, keto, etc.
Further explaining the technology side of things, Sunkara said that the system works with multiple sensors – close to 1,200 – which check every microsecond, oversee how they perform or err. Similar to how human senses work, for eyes, they leverage computer vision, and for ears, they have systems integrated with Alexa.
“We also have developed a Taste Bot that senses the spectrum of a beam of light, and dissects the food, and sees how much salt etc it has,” he added, saying that it gives a specification of it, and that is how the robot can make a decision, making your food taste better and consistent.
Besides these, the team said that they use multiple simulation platforms. The company has also developed an in-house AI-enabled platform called ‘YummOS,’ where the entire operation of the robotics can be monitored and controlled. The company told AIM that it looks to open-source its platform in the future.
NALA Robotics chief said that the cost of setting up a fully-automated robotic restaurant varies on the number of dishes, tasks, and restaurant format.
For instance, if you have a large menu that includes pizza, burgers, and biryani, the cost would go way up as you will need multiple robots working on each cuisine. But, if an individual robot does tasks like frying fries, it will be much more affordable. So, the cost varies from $120,000 and can go up to $1 million.
Return on investment (RoI)
This would depend on the number of hours you run the restaurant, like 24/7 operations or eight-hour operations, ten-hour operations, etc. “There will be significant savings in terms of the staffing cost,” said Sunkara. He said that there would be a 10-15 per cent reduction of the staffing cost, again, it would depend on the restaurant format, menu, and how effectively they utilise the robots.
Further, he said that if you are a 24/7 restaurant, the savings multiply with other benefits like you do not have insurance claims, slips and falls, no sick leaves, etc.
Eyes Indian market
NALA Robotics is currently in an expansion mode. While Sunkara said the company sees an opportunity globally, India is very close to his heart. He said India has a unique problem. “With a population of 1.3 billion plus right now, a solution with robotics can answer hunger problems, and food is going to be a lot more affordable for many people,” he added.
Touching upon the country’s plethora of cuisines and delicacies, he said that certain foods are not available everywhere due to a lack of talent, chefs, etc. “So, robotic solutions might be an answer to those areas as well,” said Sunkara. That explains why they opened an Indian restaurant in Chicago in the first place because solving for India can be an answer to global problems.
Indian cuisines prepared by Nala Chef
Talent crunch in AI & robotics
Initially, NALA Robotics started with 20 members, today, they have about 170 employees and are actively hiring. “We expect to be 500 by the end of 2024,” he added. But, the question is, how will they achieve that goal, given the dearth of talent in the AI and robotics landscape?
Sunkara seems to have sorted this issue. Besides running the show for NALA Robotics, he is also one of the members of Usha Rama College of Engineering and Technology, Vijayawada–run by his father, Sunkara Ramabrahamam, alongside his brother Anil Sunkara and others. “My dad runs an engineering college in India. So, we find talent from the college,” said Ajay Sunkara.
He said that the college recently introduced robotics and AI courses. “Right now, we have a steady stream of talent coming from college,” said Sunkara.
During the initial days, NALA Robotics’ biggest challenge was the adaptation itself. “The one who runs the PoS was not used to working with the robot. So that was just the initial challenge. It is now pretty streamlined, and we are now running buffets in the Chicago location – that is pretty good.”
Sunkara also said that most of the challenges the company faces today are from local government authorities. For instance, there is a whole gamut of regulations in the US, including UL-NSF certification, local county regulations, health department regulations, etc. “These are some challenges because we are the first to enter into the robotic food space,” said Sunkara.
Further, he said educating everyone has become a bit of a challenge, but we have crossed all of them, and right now, we have a stable platform running for the past nine months.
Growth way forward
In a short span of five years, the company has come a long way. The pandemic accelerated their growth, making their products more relevant than ever. “At our restaurant in Chicago, the robots are behind the wall; we don’t show them to the public. But, with the pandemic, things changed and now we regret it,” said Sunkara.
A few months ago, NALA Robotics ran a survey to understand customers’ mindset of how comfortable they are with robots making their food. The results were not surprising; nearly 68% said they are happy with robots cooking their food. “The dynamics are changing. Right now, both Gen Z and millennials are supporting technology,” said Sunkara.
Further, he said that the US has a huge staffing issue. “We have been getting calls from all over the world, not just in the US, but in Europe, Indonesia, etc. Everyone is struggling with staffing issues,” he added, saying that they are in the right place at the right time. “Currently, we are working with large restaurant chains, developing solutions for them, from pizza to sandwiches, burgers, etc.,” said Sunkara.
He also said they are working with companies on dishwashing as most restaurants are struggling with manpower post-pandemic. “Our sales pipeline is close to a few hundred million right now,” shared Sunkara.
Taste the future
Sharing the roadmap ahead of the company, the NALA chief said that in the coming months, they are going to focus their efforts on two verticals – mainly installations of fast food restaurants, QSR fine dining restaurants, etc., and setting up of ‘robotic ghost kitchens’ across the country, in the US.
“A large restaurant chain would be able to afford robots, but home chefs or someone just starting out will not be able to afford them so we have established robotic kitchens all across the country, where anyone can go online, create menu, recipe, put a name, and signup on GrubHub or UberEats,” shared Sunkara, saying that when the order comes in, the robots are going to fulfil the order, make the dish and the food aggregators would deliver the order to customers doorsteps.
In other words, you do not have to open a physical restaurant, you can virtually open a robotic restaurant, and in a matter of seconds, your restaurant can be available in all 100 to 1000s locations. “Sitting at home, you will be able to start your restaurant and start serving food worldwide,” he added.
From a monetisation perspective, NALA Robotics said that they would take a cut of it, where they will be charging the customers.
Currently, the ‘restaurant-as-a-service’ marketplace by NALA Robotics is available in the US and soon in Saudi Arabia. “We will be expanding into India as well,” he shared. He said they have an office in Hyderabad, India.
NALA Robotics’ research and development centres are currently in the US and Ukraine. “We are setting up our R&D centres in Riyadh and India as well. We are looking to hire more people in the coming months,” he added.
Ghost Kitchen installations by NALA Robotics
Will robots take over jobs?
One of the most common questions that come to mind after reading this is – will the robots take over human jobs? A lot of students and people from lower-income socio-economic groups turn to restaurants for jobs to earn income, make ends meet, or fulfil their ambitions. But, with the intervention of robots, people fear that their jobs are at stake.
“The answer to that is ‘NO’,” said Sunkara, citing the evolution of computers on how it helped humanity leapfrog scientific advancements and technology innovations, creating more high-paying jobs. He expects robotics will also go through a similar transition.
He said, “Robots have already been in the manufacturing industry – did they take our jobs? Maybe a little bit. But, more than that, they improved the safety of the manufacturing industry,” he added.
Sunkara said that the quality of life in every aspect of it has improved with robotics, similar to how computer operations have been done. He believes that in the future, the adoption of robotics will happen, and there will be tasks for humans,” he added, “In fact, we are starting to explore other planets right now. So there will be a lot of needs for humans–they will not be out of jobs, for sure.”