Sweetgreen, Spyce, and the Future of Robot Food

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Illustration: Kyle Ellingson

Yesterday, I ate my first Sad Desk Salad in well over a year. I wasn’t actually back at an office desk, but a Sweetgreen just opened next to my apartment, so I bought some lunch. The entire operation was, for better or worse, exactly as I remember it: shockingly efficient (I ordered with the app), completely nondescript (I could have been at any one of the 100-plus Sweetgreens currently in existence, or any of the approximately 578 other salad operations that popped up in New York City in the latter half of the 2010s), and blandly antiseptic (the sans-serif typefaces and clinical design transported me right back, however briefly, to the year 2018).

Maybe I was hoping to experience a little moment of pre-pandemic life. Maybe I really wanted to eat a bowl of Guacamole Greens with added “warm quinoa.” (It was fine!) Or maybe Sweetgreen was on my mind because it’s been in the news lately. Late last month, the chain announced that it had purchased Spyce, a two-restaurant Boston company whose main thing is that it uses something called “the Infinite Kitchen” — a combination of griddles, chutes, conveyor belts, and other mechanical parts — to cook and assemble noodle bowls. This is another way to say that Spyce is a company that invented a robot to make food that human beings then eat.

I’ve never eaten there, but news stories always treat it as more of a tech demo than a proper restaurant chain. And Spyce actually closed, after about a year and a half in business; it reopened in late 2020 following a complete overhaul of its robot setup, which, again, is sort of Spyce’s whole deal. Now, it is the fullest realization yet of a long-held and completely beguiling human fantasy: to eat food that is made by a machine.

You don’t want to know how the breakfast robot got that bone for the dog.
Photo: Moviestore/Shutterstock

In the not-so-distant future, that dream will likely become even more real. As Sweetgreen recently told Insider, “Ultimately the vision is to have Spyce’s technology power Sweetgreen’s restaurants.” The plan, the site reports, is to build “a new product and concept that will best achieve Sweetgreen’s goals in our restaurants as we scale.” Spyce’s founders — robotics experts from MIT — write in their own statement that, because of this deal, “our main focus will be developing technology for Sweetgreen restaurants.”

Granted, that’s pretty vague, and things do not always go the way that Sweetgreen CEO Jonathan Neman envisions them. In July, while offering his sense of when workers might return to offices full-time (and thus once again line up for his company’s salads), he told a Times reporter, “COVID’s over.” That of course turned out to be the opposite of true, and he wrote “COVID’s here to stay” just last week in a LinkedIn post, while wondering if the not-at-all-over pandemic might instead be an opportunity to sell more salads for the sake of the Greater Good: “What if we taxed processed food and refined sugar to pay for the impact of the pandemic?” he mused. He eventually deleted the post, obviously, but it is nevertheless reasonable, given Neman’s commitment to Big Ideas, to assume that he’s serious about the robot thing, and that his company purchased another company known for building restaurant robots because he really does see a future where people will want to eat food prepared by restaurant robots.

Do we want to eat food made by robots? Chain salad might be the perfect food to answer that question. Chain salad is neither bad nor good. It simply is. Whether it is made by a robot, or a person I never see because I ordered the salad on my phone and then picked it up from a shelf in the store, is largely irrelevant to the Sweetgreen Experience. At Sweetgreen, you don’t think about where your salad actually came from; instead, you think about how cool it is that Naomi Osaka is an investor.

Not pictured: a salad.
Photo: Sweetgreen

In some ways, the salad is the least important detail of Sweetgreen’s future. The food is a MacGuffin, the thing around which to build the larger enterprise, but which has no intrinsic value of its own. Warby Parker and Away and Everlane and Sweetgreen all feel basically interchangeable because they are the same thing. Would I care if a robot made my suitcase? Not really. So will I care if a robot makes my Guacamole Greens?

Well. It’s hard not to think that it’s all gotten a bit dystopian around here lately, and that salad-making robots would be another step in that direction. The labor implications are pretty bleak, and technology that can essentially remove the entire kitchen staff from a restaurant is a less exciting innovation than, say, an economically viable solution to make the industry more equitable and sustainable for everyone who already works within it.

It’s not like Sweetgreen and Spyce are going it alone here, either. There is plenty of robo-creep in the food world. We have pizza robots and delivery robots and delivery drones, and Oscar Mayer Bologna is still made with “mechanically separated chicken,” which means baloneybots have played at least some part in the American food system for ages.

This thinking is directly at odds with the world’s most exclusive, expensive restaurants, which are predicated on the fantasy that every single detail of a meal has been deeply considered and pored over by culinary savants whose only goal in life is to make their customers happy. Even though $15 salads are not $700 vegan tastings, they are still a luxury proposition as far as fast food is concerned, and Sweetgreen has long co-opted the ideals of fine dining within its stores when they suit its larger corporate strategy. (Most notably when it partnered with chef Dan Barber’s Row 7 seed company in 2018.)

So is this how Skynet begins — with some salad? Probably not, but the thought still occurred to me while I ate my lunch and wondered what small portion, if any, of the $12.95 I paid for my Guacamole Greens would go toward funding Sweetgreen’s robot initiative. Who was the person that even made this salad? I wondered. And will a saladbot eventually put them out of a job? I didn’t know the answer, of course, but thinking about it did make my Sad Desk Salad seem just a little bit sadder.