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Startup automates Chinese restaurants with cooking robots

Yushanfang's technology helps save space and achieves uniform taste across chains

In April 2020, Yushanfang opened a Chinese fast-food restaurant chain called Yihexian, whose outlets have one or two robots that cook 20 to 25 items. (Photo courtesy of Yushanfang Cooking Robot Tech)

BEIJING -- Yushanfang Cooking Robot Tech, which makes restaurant kitchens smart, has raised several tens of million of yuan (several million dollars) from China Prosperity Capital and Seekdource Investment Management in an angel round of funding.

The company aims to use the funds for product and human-resources development and marketing.

Cooking robots developed by Yushanfang, founded in 2018, are now in the 10th generation. The robots, which prepare one dish at a time upon order, are used by fast-food restaurants.

Cooks' skills are a key factor in the taste of Chinese food, besides the quality of ingredients. In conventional restaurants, the kitchen and pantry often occupy as much as one-third of the area. And the quality of food varies at small to medium-size restaurants, which in addition can generate only limited sales per unit of area. Yushanfang's cooking robots, which use artificial intelligence, address such issues.

A Yushanfang cooking robot has a four-burner stove and takes up only 1.6 sq. meters of space. It finishes a dish in average of 1.8 minutes and is programmed to cook over 700 kinds of dishes. The company's central kitchen performs basic preparation on ingredients and delivers them to restaurants. The robot can quickly adjust the cooking temperature, heating to 240 degrees C in just two seconds after igniting a burner. It can simultaneously prepare four dishes in two minutes, seasoning them precisely. It can be cleaned easily and also can be installed with a device to reduce discharges of oil and soot.

Conventional fast-food restaurants often cook large quantities in advance, reheating them when orders come in. But foods' taste and texture deteriorate when heated repeatedly. Because the robot cooks each dish upon order, it can satisfy customers with both quick service and good taste.

In April 2020, Yushanfang opened a Chinese fast-food restaurant chain called Yihexian, each of whose outlets is equipped with one or two robots that cook 20 to 25 menu items. The outlets do not have a backroom, and have two staffers who operate the robots and serve customers. There are now a dozen outlets, mainly in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. The average customer spends 20 to 28 yuan ($3.10 to $4.30). The company is increasing the outlets, with some of them directly operated and others franchised.

Yushanfang founder Wen Jie expects automation of restaurant operations will gain momentum. It takes years of training and experience for a worker to become a skilled cook, but young people tend to shun such demanding occupations. Furthermore, managing restaurants is difficult, which has led to increased risk for investments in restaurant operators. Cooking robots' advantage lies in their ability to standardize what has until now required human experience, maintaining consistent operations and taste across outlets.

Yushanfang is testing 24-hour-a-day operation of its robots at locations other than restaurants, such as business offices and convenience stores. Over the long term, it plans to develop a system that can predict a customer's preferences based on their order history and recommend menu items. It also plans a service to allow users to specify their preferences in seasonings, such as saltiness and hotness, when ordering.

Yushanfang has about 30 employees, the majority of whom are research and development staffers. Wen, who has launched multiple businesses, has a wealth of experience in the fields of automation and kitchen equipment.

According to Ma Zhiqiang of China Prosperity Capital, which led the investment round, the market for China's restaurant industry is worth some 4 trillion yuan, but companies operating chain restaurants represent less than 6% of this. The market for Chinese fast-food restaurants overall is worth 800 billion yuan, but many of the operators are small, family-run restaurants, which leaves significant room for growth using standardization or through branding. Yushanfang, which was early to introduce cooking robots, leads in technology, brand recognition and marketing and has staffers experienced in business startups, and the market for its service to make restaurant kitchens smart has growth potential.

Huan Songyi, a partner at Seekdource Investment Management, which also participated in the investment round, regards Yushanfang's cooking robots as a tool that will standardize the restaurant industry and drive its further growth. As they can make food quality uniform, they could enable the extension of business hours and the expansion of operational locations at restaurants in airports, train stations and other large facilities. In China, major restaurant brands, including the hot-pot restaurant chain Haidilao, have been aggressive in introducing automated cooking equipment to cut labor costs. This kind of trend creates a growth opportunity for Yushanfang.

36Kr, a Chinese tech news portal founded in Beijing in 2010, has more than 150 million readers worldwide. Nikkei announced a partnership with 36Kr on May 22, 2019.

For the Japanese version of this story, click here.

For the Chinese version, click here.

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