National restaurant chain Sweetgreen announced Tuesday its plans to acquire Spyce, a Boston-based eatery that uses automated kitchens to serve robot-prepared meals.
Financial terms of the deal weren’t given, but it is expected to close in the third quarter.
The two companies share a common purpose, according to Sweetgreen cofounder Jonathan Neman, and Spyce’s technology will enable Sweetgreen to improve the quality of its food and the efficiency of its operations.
“We built sweetgreen to connect more people to real food and create healthy fast food at scale for the next generation, and Spyce has built state-of-the-art technology that perfectly aligns with that vision,” Neman said in a statement. Through the acquisition, he said, ”we will be able to elevate our team member experience, provide a more consistent customer experience and bring real food to more communities.”
Spyce, opened in 2018 by a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumni, prepares its meals in a mostly automated kitchen. At its two locations, in Downtown Crossing and Harvard Square, customers can order at a kiosk and watch their meals come together.
Behind the counter, workers load ingredients into refrigerated containers in Spyce’s “Infinite Kitchen,” which balances timing, technique, and measurement to try to ensure each bowl turns out exactly as planned. Its double-sided plancha — divided into multiple temperature-controlled lanes, each for a different ingredient — sears the foods before depositing them into a bowl that travels through the kitchen on a conveyor belt.
After shuttering its only location in 2019 to make improvements, Spyce reopened with its new, higher-efficiency kitchen in November 2020 and added its second location, in Cambridge, in January. During the pandemic, the company pivoted toward pickup and delivery, even hiring its own in-house delivery team. Spyce branded itself as a place to stop by or order a quick, veggie-heavy meal — with options ranging from fruity salads to spicy ramen noodles.
Sweetgreen, which has 34 locations in the Boston area, is still determining when it will introduce Spyce’s technology into its kitchen, according to a press release. The MIT startup raised about $25 million in venture capital funding, according to PitchBook data, and has more than 20 investors, among them the Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud.
The merger is expected to allow Sweetgreen’s team members time to focus more on preparation and hospitality, as well as help its stores push out orders faster and with more consistency, the company said. Sweetgreen will also be better able to expand its menu to offer a wider array of meal options. (It’s unclear what, if any, impact the deal may have on restaurant staffing levels.)
“As operators in the healthy, fast casual space, Sweetgreen has long been the brand that we have most admired,” Spyce cofounder Michael Farid said in a statement. “We’re excited to come on board to join another inspiring, founder-led company, and to work together to blaze the trail for the future of this industry.”
Alex Canter, CEO of restaurant technology service provider Ordermark, said he sees the shift toward automation as part of a “natural evolution” in the restaurant industry, and the meal options at Sweetgreen offer a perfect starting place.
“Things like poke bowls or salads or just bowl concepts in general are an easier thing to automate than many other types of food,” Canter said. “That’s totally something that should be automated and can be. It will likely reduce wait times and pickup times.”
The technology can also help ensure quality control by standardizing processes to eliminate human error. And although automation in the kitchen may replace some work typically carried out by employees, Canter said human workers will always remain essential to the restaurant experience.
Down the road, if and when automation permeates the industry, the experience will no longer seem so gimmicky, Canter said.
“There’s high interest from consumers in the beginning where it’s like, ‘Whoa, look at how cool that is,’” he said. “But once it becomes more and more standardized, people won’t care about taking a picture of a robot making their meal. It just becomes normal.”
Angela Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.