Inside Wavemaker Labs' Push to Automate Restaurants

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

Inside Wavemaker Labs' Push to Automate Restaurants
As Restaurants Scramble for Workers, It's 'Order Up' for Miso Robotics and Its Burger-Flipping Robot

Like so many other sectors, the restaurant industry continues to face a severe labor shortage.

The November 2021 jobs report found that employment in the leisure and hospitality sector was down by 1.3 million, or 7.9%, since February 2020—bad enough to prompt U.S. Labor Secretary Martin Walsh to admit he saw “room for improvement” in the industry.

But there’s no simple solution: A rising federal minimum wage, the option of the gig economy, a pandemic, and new attitudes about work and employment, have made it nearly impossible for restaurants to retain employees.

But for fast food restaurants, there appears to be a solution—albeit a controversial one—to bypass the worker shortage: remove workers from the equation altogether. Indeed, the industry appears to be on the cusp of a transition towards automation, and Los Angeles is situated at the center of the coming storm.


Wavemaker Labs is a Santa Monica-based incubator focused on automating the entire food industry supply chain “from seed to fork,” said Wavemaker founder and CEO Buck Jordan.

The company has focused on automating fast food and restaurant kitchens. It recently announced an ambitious robotics project with Nommi, which is working to create what’s basically a fully autonomous vending machine that dishes out Michelin-star-quality grain bowls. It was also one of the early backers of Miso Robotics, a company that’s making robots that can run a fry station or a drink station in a fast-food restaurant

Los Angeles is an auspicious proving ground for these technologies.

“California, especially Southern California, is a restaurant hub,” said Jake Brewer, Miso’s Chief Strategy Officer. “You have Panda, you have Chipotle, you have Taco Bell, Del Taco. You have these big brands that are centered there.”

These business opportunities, in combination with a strong pipeline of talent from schools like Cal Tech, have allowed Wavemaker Labs to form partnerships and pilot programs.

“It’s where food and tech meet,” said Brewer. “The food creativity in LA is unlike anywhere else and the tech creativity is unlike anywhere else. If two people live together long enough they either become friends or they kill each other. In this instance they became friends.”

Miso Robotics

Miso Robotics has been operating since 2016, but the company has only recently begun testing their tech in the wild.

Miso has 15 robots deployed in restaurants across America and has inked pilot deals with 12 restaurant brands including Buffalo Wild Wings, CaliBurger, and Compass Levy. The plan, according to Brewer, is to have hundreds of robots operational by the end of next year, and thousands by the end of 2023.

Currently, Miso offers three different solutions for the quick service restaurant industry, all of which are designed to help with back of house operations. The first two are robots that can run different stations, specifically the deep fryers and the drink stations.

The robots, known as Flippy and Sippy, effectively replace workers at these stations and—according to Miso—offer improved efficiency. The third piece of technology is an AI-powered camera training platform that helps new hires understand how to assemble orders and run the back of house.

Miso recently started a pilot with White Castle in 2020 for their robotic fry cook. The bot basically operates the deep fryer and the grill in the back of house, which is one of the most demanding jobs with the highest turnover rate in the industry, lasting on average, less than one year and often less than 6 months.

White Castle, Brewer says, was an especially challenging partnership for the company due to the large number of fried items on the menu, the high volume of the restaurant, and the brand’s complex limited time offer schemes. Still, the robot earned its keep, and White Castle is looking to add more Flippy units to its stores in 2022.

Bobacino robots are set for the food automation age.dot.la

Nommi

Nommi represents an arguably more ambitious vision of the future of fast food. The idea behind Nommi is to make the kitchen fully autonomous. Humans still have to oversee operations or perhaps clean and maintain the machines, but the idea behind Nommi is basically to make a vending machine that serves hot, fresh meals.

The technology follows in the shoes of other kiosk-style operations developed by Wavemaker. The incubator has already dabbled in a pizza kiosk (Piestro) and an autonomous boba-tea maker (Bobacino), but Nommi is considerably more ambitious both in terms of scale and what it might ultimately mean for the future of the industry.

The prototype Nommi kitchen makes bowl-style meals—think noodles plus chicken or rice plus veggies. All of the cooking, chopping, seasoning etc. is handled by a series of robots and the ingredients are dispensed into a bowl atop a small autonomous cart and delivered to a person.

The project has drawn the backing of former Iron Chef Koumei Nakamura, and prototypes are currently in development. “He’s real serious about his food,” said Jordan, who, in addition to his role as Wavemaker’s CEO, is also CEO at Nommi. Jordan says that consumers can expect to see Nommi pilot programs “in the wild” as early as the end of next year, with production versions following another year after that.

Brewer says the pandemic initially depressed in-store fast food purchases by upwards of 70%, but delivery and takeout numbers went through the roof and have remained high ever since. If this trend is here to stay, Jordan thinks Nommi may represent the future model of fast food.

“In five to seven years, what I think you’re going to see is a lot of major brands starting to design their menus to be automated,” he said. “When you can fully automate a menu, all of a sudden your real estate costs get cut by two thirds or three quarters because you have a kitchen in a box. Your labor goes to almost nothing.”

While the pricing schemes haven’t been worked out yet, Jordan’s hoping Nommi can deliver high-quality food at fast-casual prices.

“We know that the economics are so good for the Nommi machine that we sort of 4x the profitability of a comparable restaurant that’s operating in analog,” he said. “We think that allows us to really deliver Michelin star quality at a really affordable price. I would love to offer a grain bowl for $7.”

What About the Workers?

An average McDonald’s franchise employs between 50 to 150 people. A fully autonomous kitchen will still need humans to clean and service the machines. People will be required to repair damaged equipment. Delivery men will still drive raw goods to the machines. Someone will likely need to oversee the whole operation.

But even still, making a kitchen autonomous represents the loss of dozens of jobs. “Is it going to be one job lost and one job gained here? I doubt it. There will be a shift,” said Jordan.

Mark Muro, who studies automation at the Brookings Institute, says the thing he’s most concerned about is the loss of entry level jobs.

“It’s not always clear how you get started in America’s economy,” he said. “But one thing there’s always been is working in a restaurant or low-end retail. That could be a serious problem for teenage and 20-something workers.”

He also points out that underrepresented groups, who’ve historically taken low paying, difficult jobs, may be disproportionately impacted by automation in the sector.

Conversely, automation holds tremendous promises for business owners and potentially for consumers as well if costs decrease and consistency and quality improve. These aren’t groundbreaking concepts, but they’re ones that the industry will be forced to confront if automation becomes widespread.

“I don’t think we’re going to uninvent these technologies,” said Muro. The best we can do, in his eyes, is to give workers fair warning that their jobs are on the chopping block and provide opportunities for them to retrain.

Likewise, Jordan believes automation is coming one way or another. He points to the development of the tractor and other technological advances which, in the past, put large numbers of laborers out of jobs, but ultimately created more agricultural industry overall.

“My first job was making pizza at Valley Pizza in Woodland Hills,” he said. “I don’t think my son, when he’s 18 years old, is going to have that job available to him.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Wavemaker had just finished a pilot with Miso. That project just began.

🤠Musk Picks Texas and 🔥Tinder AI Picks Your Profile Pictures
Image Source: Tinder

🔦 Spotlight

Tinder is altering dating profile creation with its new AI-powered Photo Selector feature, designed to help users choose their most appealing dating profile pictures. This innovative tool employs facial recognition technology to curate a set of up to 10 photos from the user's device, streamlining the often time-consuming process of profile setup. To use the feature, users simply take a selfie within the Tinder app and grant access to their camera roll. The AI then analyzes the photos based on factors like lighting and composition, drawing from Tinder's research on what makes an effective profile picture.

The selection process occurs entirely on the user's device, ensuring privacy and data security. Tinder doesn't collect or store any biometric data or photos beyond those chosen for the profile, and the facial recognition data is deleted once the user exits the feature. This new tool addresses a common pain point for users, as Tinder's research shows that young singles typically spend about 25 to 33 minutes selecting a profile picture. By automating this process, Tinder aims to reduce profile creation time and allow users to focus more on making meaningful connections.

In wholly unrelated news, Elon Musk has announced plans to relocate the headquarters of X (formerly Twitter) and SpaceX from California to Texas. SpaceX will move from Hawthorne to Starbase, while X will shift from San Francisco to Austin. Musk cited concerns about aggressive drug users near X's current headquarters and a new California law regarding gender identity notification in schools as reasons for the move. This decision follows Musk's previous relocation of Tesla's headquarters to Texas in 2021.

🤝 Venture Deals

LA Companies

LA Venture Funds

LA Exits

  • Penguin Random House agreed to acquire comic book publisher Boom! Studios from backers like Walt Disney Co. - learn more

Download the dot.LA App

Top LA Accelerators that Entrepreneurs Should Know About

Los Angeles, has a thriving startup ecosystem with numerous accelerators, incubators, and programs designed to support and nurture new businesses. These programs provide a range of services, including funding, mentorship, workspace, networking opportunities, and strategic guidance to help entrepreneurs develop their ideas and scale their companies.


Techstars Los Angeles

Techstars is a global outfit with a chapter in Los Angeles that opened in 2017. It prioritizes local companies but will fund some firms based outside of LA.

Location: Culver City

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, early stage

Focus: Industry Agnostic

Notable Past Companies: StokedPlastic, Zeno Power


Grid110

Grid110 offers no-cost, no-equity programs for entrepreneurs in Los Angeles, including a 12-week Residency accelerator for early-stage startups, an Idea to Launch Bootcamp for pre-launch entrepreneurs, and specialized programs like the PledgeLA Founders Fund and Friends & Family program, all aimed at providing essential skills, resources, and support to help founders develop and grow their businesses.

Location: DTLA

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage

Focus: Industry Agnostic

Notable Past Companies: Casetify, Flavors From Afar


Idealab

Idealab is a renowned startup studio and incubator based in Pasadena, California. Founded in 1996 by entrepreneur Bill Gross, Idealab has a long history of nurturing innovative technology companies, with over 150 startups launched and 45 successful IPOs and acquisitions, including notable successes like Coinbase and Tenor.

Location: Pasadena

Type of Funding: Stage agnostic

Focus: Industry Agnostic, AI/Robotics, Consumer, Clean Energy

Notable Past Companies: Lumin, Coinbase, Tenor


Plug In South LA

Plug In South LA is a tech accelerator program focused on supporting and empowering Black and Latinx entrepreneurs in the Los Angeles area. The 12-week intensive program provides early-stage founders with mentorship, workshops, strategic guidance, potential pilot partnerships, grant funding, and networking opportunities to help them scale their businesses and secure investment.

Location: Los Angeles

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, seed

Focus: Industry Agnostic, Connection to South LA and related communities

Notable Past Companies: ChargerHelp, Peadbo


Cedars-Sinai Accelerator

The Cedars-Sinai Accelerator is a three-month program based in Los Angeles that provides healthcare startups with $100,000 in funding, mentorship from over 300 leading clinicians and executives, and access to Cedars-Sinai's clinical expertise and resources. The program aims to transform healthcare quality, efficiency, and care delivery by helping entrepreneurs bring their innovative technology products to market, offering participants dedicated office space, exposure to a broad network of healthcare entrepreneurs and investors, and the opportunity to pitch their companies at a Demo Day.

Location: West Hollywood

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage, convertible note

Focus: Healthcare, Device, Life Sciences

Notable Past Companies: Regard, Hawthorne Effect


MedTech Innovator

MedTech Innovator is the world's largest accelerator for medical technology companies, based in Los Angeles, offering a four-month program that provides selected startups with unparalleled access to industry leaders, investors, and resources without taking equity. The accelerator culminates in showcase events and competitions where participating companies can win substantial non-dilutive funding, with the program having a strong track record of helping startups secure FDA approvals and significant follow-on funding.

Location: Westwood

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage

Focus: Health Care, Health Diagnostics, Medical Device

Notable Past Companies: Zeto, Genetesis


KidsX

The KidsX Accelerator in Los Angeles is a 10-week program that supports early-stage digital health companies focused on pediatric care, providing mentorship, resources, and access to a network of children's hospitals to help startups validate product-market fit and scale their solutions. The accelerator uses a reverse pitch model, where participating hospitals identify focus areas and work closely with selected startups to develop and pilot digital health solutions that address specific pediatric needs.

Location: East Hollywood

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, seed, early stage

Focus: Pediatric Health Care Innovation

Notable Past Companies: Smileyscope, Zocalo Health


Disney Accelerator

Disney Accelerator is a startup accelerator that provides early-stage companies in the consumer media, entertainment and technology sectors with mentorship, guidance, and investment from Disney executives. The program, now in its 10th year, aims to foster collaborations and partnerships between innovative technology companies and The Walt Disney Company to help them accelerate their growth and bring new experiences to Disney audiences.

Location: Burbank

Type of Funding: Growth stage

Focus: Technology and entertainment

Notable Past Companies: Epic Games, BRIT + CO, CAMP


Techstars Space Accelerator

Techstars Space Accelerator is a startup accelerator program focused on advancing the next generation of space technology companies. The three-month mentorship-driven program brings together founders from across the globe to work on big ideas in aerospace, including rapid launch services, precision-based imaging, operating systems for complex robotics, in-space servicing, and thermal protection.

Location: Los Angeles

Type of Funding: Growth stage

Focus: Aerospace

Notable Past Companies: Pixxel, Morpheus Space



Download the dot.LA App

🚁 One Step Closer to Air Taxis in LA
Image Source: Joby Aviation

🔦 Spotlight

Joby Aviation, a pioneering electric air taxi company, has achieved a significant milestone by successfully flying a hydrogen-electric aircraft demonstrator for 523 miles with only water as a byproduct. This groundbreaking flight showcases the potential for emissions-free regional travel using vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, eliminating the need for traditional runways. The company's innovative approach combines its existing battery-electric air taxi technology with hydrogen fuel cells, paving the way for longer-range, environmentally friendly air travel.

For LA residents, this development holds exciting implications for future transportation options. Joby's technology could potentially enable direct flights from LA to destinations like San Francisco or San Diego without the need to visit conventional airports, offering a cleaner and more convenient alternative to current travel methods. The company's progress in both battery-electric and hydrogen-electric aircraft positions it at the forefront of next-generation aviation, promising to revolutionize urban and regional mobility.

Notably, Joby Aviation has already made strides in Southern California by securing an agreement with John Wayne Airport earlier this year to install the region's first electric air taxi charger. This strategic move sets the stage for LA to be among the initial markets where Joby will launch its electric air taxi service. With plans to commence commercial operations as early as 2025 using its battery-electric air taxi, LA residents may soon have access to a fast, quiet, and environmentally friendly mode of transportation that could significantly reduce travel times and traffic congestion in the region. In the not too distant future, LA might find itself in an identity crisis without traffic and excess smog 🤞🤞.


🤝 Venture Deals

LA Companies

LA Venture Funds


Download the dot.LA App

RELATEDEDITOR'S PICKS
Trending