- Sweetgreen’s first automated infinity kitchen location in Naperville, Illinois, has been operating since early May.
- CEO Jonathan Neiman told investors weeks later that the salad chain expects all of its stores to be automated eventually.
- Sweetgreen Infinite Kitchen hopes to reduce labor costs and improve the customer experience.
In early May, Sweetgreen opened its first auto location in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Illinois. Just weeks after opening the restaurant, the salad chain is gearing up to tap into the technology to cut labor costs and improve the customer experience.
But in the early days of the automation experiment, only time will tell if customers, employees and investors will prefer the new salads and hot bowls.
The restaurant industry has historically been slow to adapt to new technology. Restaurants’ razor-thin profit margins mean they don’t want to invest in expensive technology that most likely won’t work for their kitchens or dining rooms.
But with the so-called Infinite Kitchen, Sweetgreen joins the ranks of restaurant companies that are incorporating automation into their operations. Starbucks and Chipotle Mexican Grill are among the big names exploring artificial intelligence, or robots. Some experiments, such as McDonald’s AI voice ordering for drive-thru routes, have not resulted in a nationwide launch.
But Sweetgreen seems more confident.
“We expect that within five years eventually all Sweetgreen stores will be automated,” CEO Jonathan Neiman told investors at the William Blair Growth Stocks conference this month.
Sweetgreen plans to open a second Infinite Kitchen location later this year. Although the company did not disclose the location, it said that it will renovate the existing space in the technology.
Sweetgreen jumped into automation in August 2021. It bought the salad chain Spice for about $50 million a few months before it went public, though the final valuation will depend on the performance of the startup’s technology, according to regulatory filings.
Spice It is the brainchild of four MIT graduates who founded the company in 2015. They developed robotic technology to deliver healthy meals at affordable prices. The startup opened two restaurants in the Boston area before buying Sweetgreen.
A month after Sweetgreen acquired Spice, and before it closed Spice restaurants, the salad chain brought out a few menu items to try at Spice locations.
Sweetgreen then worked on how to operate the robotic kitchen for his restaurants.
“The fundamentals of IK were the same. We focused on making it easy to communicate with a team member – to store, clean, repair. There were also some adjustments to maintain food quality,” said Timothy Noonan, Sweetgreen’s. Vice President of Operations Strategy and Concept Design told CNBC.
The chain had to develop a way to make goat’s cheese easier to chew and cherry tomatoes. He has adapted the technology to ensure continuous parts, whether for airborne arugula or sunflower seeds. Sweetgreen also added the ability to rotate the bowls as they move along the conveyor belt that fills the bowls, ensuring even distribution of portions and the ability to mix the ingredients together at the end.
“We have an amazing team, but it’s really hard to keep it right and consistent,” Neiman told CNBC. “And the other thing that’s amazing is that the tops don’t feel crazy. It’s not like some of our stores in New York. This allows us to be there, to serve more people, which makes us feel more flexible.”
After months of testing the technology in the lab, Sweetgreen decided to try it in Naperville, adding a new restaurant that was originally planned to be a traditional location.
“We want to understand how suburban customers interact with this,” Noonan said.
The exterior of Sweetgreen’s Naperville location
While Sweetgreen may have included labor savings for investors, the Naperville location was intended to put a face on completed orders.
The exterior of the restaurant A large window showing Sweetgreen’s staff preparing the ingredients that go into the endless kitchen dispensers and finally into the finished orders.
“It starts by human hands and we have people who finish the bowls after they are machined, so it ends by human hands,” Noonan said.
The Naperville location displays Sweetgreen products and beverages before customers order on tablets.
Upon entering the restaurant, customers pass by a cooler of drinks and a rack of Sweetgreen-branded sweatshirts and T-shirts to order their food. A large digital menu board hangs above the display, flashing tips to new customers.
“We know our menu can be a little overwhelming for some of our customers,” Noonan said.
Customers can order one of five tablets set up in the middle of the store. If none are available, diners can order on the app instead of waiting in line. Unlike a traditional Sweetgreen restaurant, customers don’t have to wait 10 to 15 minutes to receive mobile orders.
For now, an employee lugs around a tablet to help customers place their orders. Sweetgreen is still deciding how much human presence it needs in that step, Noonan said.
Behind the ordering counter is the Infinite Kitchen, which assembles customers’ salads and hot bowls.
Behind the counter is an “Infinite Kitchen” similar to the bulk food dispensers found in some grocery stores. The dispensers contain almost all the ingredients to assemble customers’ hot bowls and salads.
After the order is placed, the unsuspecting kitchen begins to assemble the plate, starting with the dressing below. Then greens and legumes, followed by the rest of the selected roofs. At each stop, the plates rotate slightly, allowing the new ingredients to go into the empty space. The plates slide past the dispensers for ingredients they don’t need, unless food in front blocks their path.
The last automatic step is mixing salads or dishes. A worker waits at the end of the assembly line to add herbs, avocados, and fish—all of which the limitless kitchen can’t yet add.
“There are still a couple of things we need to do with our hands, but we believe the focus will allow us better accuracy,” Noonan said. “We still need someone to check the orders.”
The conveyor belt holds up to 20 bowls and has room to add more if needed, and can process up to 600 bowls per hour if no mixing is required, Noonan said.
Even behind the scenes, the setup is deceptively simple. The steps after the end of the assembly line lead to the mezzanine level where the distributors can be reloaded. Screens will show if any ingredients are running low or show any defects such as an overfilled dispenser.
If any of the dispensers stop working, the ingredients can be moved to another location or added manually at the end of the process. But in general, workers are relatively hands-on in the unrestricted kitchen.
Wall Street is primarily concerned about automation’s ability to cut labor costs, though Sweetgreen and other restaurant chains deny that’s their sole motivation for exploring the technology.
TD Cowen estimated last year that 30% of Sweetgreen’s costs are labor, with half of its employees preparing food and the other half picking orders. Reducing labor means increasing profits. Sweetgreen is already profitable at the restaurant level, although the company as a whole has yet to turn a profit.
It’s already clear that Infinite Kitchen means fewer Sweetgreen employees in restaurants. Noonan said spaces with an endless kitchen can rely on half the staff of a traditional space. They don’t need to check how many workers are scheduled for a five-hour shift to deal with the overwhelming peak times – just 90 minutes long.
“Part of the beauty of this is keeping the group the same size and letting the machine draw as much as possible,” Noonan said.
Staff must prepare a kitchen that does not run out in the morning, ensuring it is well stocked and organized for correct and consistent portions. Throughout the day, employees watch digital screens that tell them if any distributors are running low on ingredients or have any problems. At the end of the day, employees must clean the system.
Sweetgreen expects some secondary labor benefits, as well. Employees in the Naperville area do not need additional training, and online, training for Infinite Kitchen locations should be quick.
“Typically, a large part of training in a restaurant involves not only training prep procedures, but also knowing how to memorize our main menu items,” Noonan said.
Neiman also said the restaurant’s calmer environment could help workers stay longer and reduce stress, which is common in the restaurant industry.
So far, customers haven’t noticed much automation, Noonan said. He said many people think ordering tablets are automated devices and mistakenly display the Infinite Kitchen fridge.
But the use of on-site automation doesn’t seem to be alienating many customers. More broadly, consumers are becoming more comfortable with technology in restaurants. A Deloitte survey conducted in March found that 60% of respondents reported that they would be more likely to order from a kitchen that prepares food at least in part using robotic technologies. This is up from 54 percent in a survey by the consulting firm two years ago.
There seems to be a lot of interest in Naperville’s use of restaurant automation, though the public is too close to know if it will be there in a few months. Rich Shank, vice president of research and insights at Chicago-based Technomic, told CNBC that colleagues have reported long lines during busy lunch and dinner hours. Shank is waiting for consumer curiosity to die before visiting.
Changes to physical ordering can contribute to longer lines. A traditional Sweetgreen location allows customers to decide on their custom meal as they move through the assembly line, telling the staff what they want. This approach often leads to lines at peak times – but they tend to move relatively quickly.
But in Naperville, customers don’t have the same opportunity to see a display of ingredients. The tablet format will be familiar to anyone who uses Sweetgreen’s website and mobile app, but it can create a stumbling block for customers who are unsure about their order.
One Yale reviewer said it took several minutes for customers to order, so the ordering line went out the door.
The customer said in his review, “This is probably the downfall of this establishment because if we had walked 5 minutes later and seen that line, we would have passed it and eaten somewhere else.”
Shank said it’s a common issue for fast-casual restaurants that have built their menus around customization.
“The verdict is out on whether any kiosk user interface can solve that problem,” Shank said.
At a basic level, customers may realize that they want someone to collect their orders.
“One person is quick to listen to the customization the customer wants and make adjustments on the fly. The machine, at least in its current form, doesn’t seem to be able to handle the modifications that often happen on the line. Like ‘I don’t want that much sauce’ or ‘Can you make it more light on the dress?'” Shank said.
And, of course, despite Sweetgreen’s best efforts to avoid bugs that bring down the system, there’s always the possibility that Infinite Kitchen’s technology will fail. The Naperville location was not created with backup lines that allow employees to quickly assemble orders by hand.