Susie is a local sous chef who spends her days on the line, making Mediterranean grain bowls with turmeric-coriander rice, chicken, roasted vegetables, crispy garbanzo beans and drizzles of a spicy, bright-red chermoula sauce. She's the ideal employee: She works impossibly long hours without complaint, maintaining near-perfect consistency no matter how many bowls she turns out. Susie forgoes benefits and vacations. She also doesn't get paid.
Susie, as it turns out, is a robot, a collection of software and hardware inside a massive 20 by 8 foot shipping container. She will soon be the newest employee of Mezli, a local startup that wants to use robotics to make cheap, convenient, high-quality food available to the masses.
The founders of Mezli — two Stanford University graduates and one current Ph.D student with experience in artificial intelligence, robotics and software and mechanical engineering — envision a future in which prefabricated Susies can be installed in parking lots, shopping malls, college campuses and sports stadiums. Because there are no humans involved or expensive rent to pay, that means you can get a cauliflower and turmeric rice bowl for $4.99.
"(We) started looking into what makes it so expensive to serve great quality food at a restaurant," said CEO Alex Kolchinski, "and realized if we actually applied some robotics to the problem, we could significantly reduce the price point of high quality food."
Kolchinski is an AI researcher who dropped out of his doctoral program to start Mezli with co-founders Alex Gruebele and Max Perham. Gruebele, Mezli's chief technology officer and an avid home cook, is finishing his doctoral degree in robotics and sensors while experimenting with home-curing meats and pickling. Max Perham is an aerospace engineer who once worked at McDonalds and In-N-Out Burger. As hungry, broke graduate students with little time to cook, they felt like there was no good option for high-quality restaurant food that's both quick and affordable.
Enter Susie, who once she's ready for prime time will be churning out a menu that was created by a human chef. The Mezli founders teamed up with Eric Minnich, a classically trained chef with experience at Michelin-starred restaurants, to develop a menu that a robot can confidently execute 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Unlike a human sous chef, Susie cannot work with open flames or oil. Minnich said he had to "reimagine the limits" of cooking, including freezing ingredients or keeping them cold until they're reheated and served. (The rice-making method they came up with is also unconventional, and proprietary.) Sauces and toppings like crispy chickpeas and pumpkin seeds are all pre-packaged. Until Susie is fully operational, Minnich is making the bowls, his hands imitating the actions of the robot.
"It's the exact same preparation and steps of reheating and cooling and saucing that the robot's going to do," he said. "Essentially, I'm just the robot."
Minnich, the former chef de cuisine at the Michelin-starred Madera in Menlo Park and executive chef of The Commissary in San Francisco, is now the culinary director at Kitchentown in San Mateo, a food startup incubator that houses Mezli. He said he wasn't freaked out when a group of Stanford software and hardware engineers approached him with the idea of a mass-produced robot that could do his job.
Food robots are nothing new — Bay Area companies have already applied automation to burgers, salads, ramen, pizza and croissants — and Minnich knew firsthand the costs and challenges of the local restaurant labor shortage.
"The industry has its own struggles it's going through as far as finding people who actually want to wash dishes and be cooks. There was already a need and demand for technology like this to come in and work with restaurants," he said. "If you can't hire anybody to fill the position anyway, a robot's not really going to take anybody's job."
Kolchinski doesn't see Mezli as supplanting traditional restaurants, where people go for social interaction as much as to eat. Mezli will never offer sit-down service and is geared toward takeout and delivery for people who want a convenient, fast meal they can eat at their desk or grab after work.
"A sit-down restaurant is a social activity; it's a neighborhood fixture; there's the human interaction side," Kolchinski said. "This is much more, honestly, utility."
For now, you can order Mezli bowls out of Kitchentown but they're still made by Minnich. They plan to have Susie up and running in the next month or two, and then test her more widely in other locations by next year. (They hope to start at their alma mater's campus.) Down the line, the robots could expand into more cuisines, including Indian, Chinese, Mexican and Vietnamese, Kolchinski said. They recently debuted lamb kofte bowls, the most expensive menu item at $7.99.
Mezli is open for takeout and delivery Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 1007 Howard Ave., San Mateo.