Menu machines

Country Garden opens first robot restaurant


Guangzhou’s new cordon bleu look

One of the exhibits at the World Economic Forum earlier this month was YuMi, a robot that makes a cup of coffee in less than 90 seconds. Thanks to its precision and agility, YuMi has also had a go at assembling watches and working with glass, according to its developer ABB.

YuMi’s debut at Davos was meant to draw attention to robotics as delegates debated the impact of automation and the urgency of reskilling an estimated 75 million workers that could be displaced.

In China the robot revolution is already gaining ground in the food and beverage industry. We reported last May that Alibaba was showcasing a milk tea shop employing a single robotic arm to prepare its customers’ choices (see WiC445). And early this month Guangdong-based property giant Country Garden took a step further by establishing the first fully robot-operated restaurant in Guangzhou – known as Foodom. (Spyce, founded in Boston in 2018, claims to be the world’s first fully robotic kitchen.)

Foodom’s specialty is the local cuisine of Shunde (birthplace of Country Garden’s boss Yang Guoqiang). Over 40 different types of robots get to work, with functionalities from stir-frying and deep frying to dessert making and cocktail mixing. A long row of 24 robots specialises in cooking claypot rice – a sizzling dish that typically sees a trove of ingredients piled atop a bed of steamed rice.

“The delivery is really swift,” a customer told approvingly, noting too that the flavours of the dishes are “just right” (meals are transported by conveyor belt straight to diners’ tables).

According to Ma Huiliang, an accomplished chef who heads the food innovation department at Qianxi Robotic Catering Group, which runs Foodom, cooking times for preparing claypot rice have reduced from more than 25 minutes to around 10 minutes, thanks to the robot chefs. “Experience, skill and methods are consolidated into one,” Ma explained. “And as the cooking process is regimented and standardised, the same dish will always come out the same whether it is made once or a thousand times.”

Qianxi’s robots learn how to cook mainly through imitation. First the research team captures how master chefs like Ma cook in 360-degree videos. “We monitor every single action of the chef, such as when he adds what, the change in the strength of the fire he uses, the duration for a particular cooking method etc. We try our best to programme those operations in the robots,” Dai Xianglu, who leads Qianxi’s core research team of 300 people, told Neweekly, a Guangdong-based magazine.

Ma thinks that the robots have achieved 90% of a professional chef’s typical work but he says chefs won’t be made redundant as a result. One option is that they turn their focus to creating new recipes, he says. Besides, robots are still weak at dish decoration and presentation.

Established last May, Qianxi has already spent over Rmb240 million ($34.6 million) on research and development, resulting in 70 robot designs and 300 patent applications, 21CN Business Herald reports. It is a unit closely linked with Bozhilin Robot, another company that Country Garden set up in 2018 to create robots for construction work.

Last September Bozhilin Robot also unveiled a large industrial park in Shunde – a key part of Yang’s plan to plough Rmb80 billion into robotics research over the next five years. The project is being supported by nine universities from Hong Kong and the mainland, and it has already hired 70 doctoral students from top-tier universities including Cambridge and Columbia.

Country Garden has been diversifying into robotics amid a slowing property market. The strategy bears some resemblance to Evergrande’s bold move into electric vehicles (see WiC459). Analysts are still to be convinced that either company has the requisite skills to make such a startling transition.

With contract sales hitting Rmb552 billion in 2019, Hong Kong-listed Country Garden is one of China’s top five property developers. But its growth rate decelerated to 10% from 31% a year ago. To weather the slowdown, it slashed its budget for land acquisition to Rmb160 billion, down 16% from a year earlier.

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