WYOMING — As a food distributor serving a large swath of the country, Gordon Food Service Inc. is closely involved with the pain points facing restaurants and food service operations.
Labor availability is one persistent challenge that has led to GFS’s recent partnership with Dexai Robotics.
The Boston-based company has developed a robotic system for commercial kitchens called Alfred, which consists of a flexible robotic arm surrounded by several receptacles for food ingredients, all controlled by a tablet and app. Users are able to program their own recipes into the ingredient system by ingredient.
Once installed, pressing a few buttons prompts Alfred to assemble a wide variety of food and dishes, from burritos, pasta, ramen and salads to Mediterranean power bowls or even topping a pizza. The robot cuts down on the dull and repetitive task of simply combining ingredients to create a dish.
“It’s changing what it means to work in a kitchen,” Dexai founder and CEO David Johnson told MiBiz during a recent visit to GFS’s headquarters in Wyoming, where he demonstrated Alfred for the campus’ entire staff. “Fifty years ago, a dishwasher wasn’t that common and now you think of it as an appliance you have to have. We see Alfred the robot as exactly in that same vein. It’s a new appliance, a new type of thing that will become just as commonplace as a dishwasher or a microwave.”
Dexai has deployed three Alfred robots out in the field to date. The first was installed at Travis Air Force Base in California, where it works in the cafeteria to create grab-and-go salads.
Another Alfred robot was put to use at a corporate cafeteria, while the third helps with operations at a Mediterranean restaurant in Dexai’s home city of Boston.
BFFs with GFS
Now partnered through GFS’s corporate innovation arm Relish Works Inc.Dexai looks to grow by leveraging the food distributor’s mammoth network and resources.
“Knowing the clients and also understanding the client needs is a big part of why we like working with (GFS),” Johnson said. “And they’re also a very innovative company. They’re always looking to find the newest thing, the best in class, what’s out there and then reaching out and partnering so we can grow together. Gordon can then bring the product to their customers and show them that they’re innovating.”
Through the partnership, GFS representatives can point to Dexai’s robot as one of many solutions for restaurants and food services grappling with workforce shortages.
Right now, the Alfred robot works at roughly half the speed of a human, making it ideal for some environments, but not yet ready for the big leagues of fast food.
“One thing that we like, especially with our partnership with Gordon, is that we can work with different customers with different needs,” Johnson said. “We can roll it out, and have it start working in the back of the house, where it doesn’t have to be quite as fast. Then we put it in front of customers and it’s got to be faster, and then we go to fast food and that’s the fastest, most demanding environment.”
Down the road, Dexai looks to create comparable robots that take on other tasks, such as preparing beverages, frying and cooking in an oven.
Johnson said he expects — and welcomes — plenty of competition flooding into the market based on the workforce shortages in the food business.
“I think that’s great,” he said. “What that means is operators are able to have a lot of choices and it shows the mindset is shifting. We’re really seeing that this is the right way for operators to address the challenges they’re having during the pandemic and post pandemic. I think we’re going to see a lot more digitization of the entire restaurant and food service.”
Relish Works is tasked with scouting out innovations in both food and food technology to help GFS forge and leverage partnerships.
Relish Works also operates the Food Foundry, an accelerator program that welcomes startups specializing in both food and food technology innovation.
The accelerator, which wrapped up its fourth cohort this spring, has hosted startups like EZ-Chow, which developed a multi-channel digital ordering and marketing platform for restaurants. That cohort also featured Forever Ware, which has created a system of reusable takeout containers and cups that customers borrow and return in order to provide trash-free takeout.
The most recent eight-company cohort focused on health, sustainability and social impact, including tenants like Confetti Fine Foods, a maker of vegetable and mushroom chips using rescued produce.
“Our role is to be out in the world finding best-in-class companies so that GFS can continue to innovate and be a leading distributor in North America,” said Tyler Booth, investment lead for Relish Works.
“We found Dexai knowing that labor was an issue in restaurants even pre-pandemic. Labor was an issue two to five years before the pandemic. We really went out there and saw robotics are coming, so who is the best-in-class company that can really help our customers from independent food operators to regional chains? Dexai really rose to the top from that research and outreach.”
As part of growing together, Dexai will gain significant exposure through participating in GFS’s series of six food service shows this fall.
Through partnerships with companies like Dexai, GFS is able to effectively remain on the cutting-edge of food, even as a 125-year-old company, executives say.
“We’re seeing different points or hot zones in a restaurant’s four walls where innovation will happen but it will always happen in coordination with humans,” Booth said. “Humans will be the conductors of the robots, but all that creativity and emotional intelligence will still live in a human.”