The Journey to Automate Commercial Kitchens

The arrival of the first batch of dirty plates to be cleaned by our robot

The arrival of the first batch of dirty plates to be cleaned by our robot

My Mission to Transform the Dishroom and Uplift the Role of Dishwasher

By Linda Pouliot, CEO & Founder, Dishcraft

“You’re here to wash dishes?” Eugenio asked when I arrived. “Fantastic! I’ll go help with prep,” he told me as he moved to a different station in the kitchen, happily whistling.

It was my first time washing dishes in a commercial kitchen, and I failed to anticipate the magnitude of the task at hand. I tackled piles of dirty dishes during that day’s lunch rush with no end in sight. Dishes came in continuous waves, a torrent of messy, smelly, slippery bowls and plates that I could not keep pace with. I was buried.

“Wow,” I thought. “This sucks.” Five hours into my shift, my back and arms were sore from reaching and pulling hundreds of wares into my grasp in a repetitive motion. My hands were red and blotchy from being submerged in scalding, soapy water, and my clothes and hair smelled of grease. I was anxious to clean up and perform another task, something with variety where it smelled better. I looked enviously over at Eugenio, who was chopping vegetables in what looked like a more interesting role. He at least got to work with a variety of veggies and regularly interact with other people in the kitchen over the course of the day. My task, in contrast, was monotonous and isolating: to sort, rinse and rack the same dirty plates over and over endlessly.

I was in that kitchen to experience the work first-hand to see if it was possible to apply automation to this task. I was considering founding a company to automate dishwashing and create a solution to an often-lamented industry issue: the constant turnover in the much-needed but unappealing role of dishwasher. But I wanted to experience the role myself to truly understand the environment, rhythm, process, and constraints that were involved. Barely a few hours on the job, it was clear to me that not only is dishwashing challenging work, but the dishwashing station presents a great case for robotics. I saw a unique opportunity to solve a very real problem and improve the workplace by applying technology that doesn't yet exist but I knew was possible from my previous startups.

When doing market research for what would become Dishcraft, I discovered a restaurant industry in crisis. This crisis has several root causes, perhaps the largest of which is a labor retention and labor shortage problem, that is felt most acutely in the dishroom. But we have since discovered that this labor challenge for dishwashing isn't unique to restaurants: it is impacting all segments of food service. The dishroom specifically is a universal issue that is only getting worse. A boom in eating out has caused food service jobs to increase by 43% since the early 2000s to meet customer demand, with 1.8 million jobs expected to be added in the next 10 years. Yet, despite this growth, the workforce is shrinking due to low wages, fewer undocumented workers, and less people willing to do the job.

As a serial robotics entrepreneur and someone who loves restaurants, I want to see them and the people within them thrive. For me, the challenges within the food service industry present some of the most exciting, impactful examples of how automation can help provide solutions for an industry. That’s why I’m proud to say that Dishcraft is leading the charge.

Why we can do this

It’s been four years since my first dishwashing shift, and I’ve learned a lot about washing dishes and the people who make kitchens into communities. Dishcraft’s mission remains the same—to provide solutions through automation that improve the workplace—and our team has grown to include talented engineers and entrepreneurs across disciplines to help us realize our objectives. We have learned from hundreds of hours of time- motion studies in commercial dishrooms in order to build and test many prototypes. In doing so we have developed a system that washes dishes shift over shift, day after day, reliably and safely.

We are deploying our first units this year and I could not be more excited about the future of the restaurant industry.