WYOMING – As a food distributor serving most of the country, Gordon Food Service Inc. is closely related to the pain points faced by restaurants and food service businesses.

Labor availability is one of the ongoing issues that has led to GFS’s recent partnership with Dexai Robotics.

A Boston-based company has developed a robotic system for commercial kitchens called Alfred, which consists of a flexible robotic arm surrounded by multiple food ingredient containers, all controlled via a tablet and an app. Users can program their own recipes into the ingredient based system.

Once installed, pressing a few buttons prompts Alfred to collect a wide variety of foods and dishes, from burritos, pastas, ramen and salads to Mediterranean energy bowls or even pizza toppings. The robot eliminates the boring and repetitive task of simply mixing ingredients to prepare a dish.

“This is changing the way we work in the kitchen,” said Dexai founder and CEO David Johnson. MiBiz during a recent visit to the GFS headquarters in Wyoming, where he demonstrated Alfred to the entire campus staff. “Fifty years ago the dishwasher was not so common, and now you think of it as an appliance that you should have. We see the Alfred robot in exactly the same vein. It’s a new appliance, a new type of thing that will become as commonplace as a dishwasher or a microwave.”

To date, Dexai has deployed three Alfred robots in the field. The first one was installed at Travis Air Force Base in California, where he works in a takeaway salad canteen.

Another Alfred robot has been used in the corporate cafeteria, and a third is helping with operations at a Mediterranean restaurant in Dexai’s hometown of Boston.

Best friends with GFS

Now working with GFS Corporate Innovation. Relish Works Inc.Dexai hopes to grow by leveraging the food distributor’s giant network and resources.

“Knowing the customers as well as understanding their needs is a big part of why we enjoy working with (GFS),” Johnson said. “And they are also a very innovative company. They are always looking for the latest, best in class, what’s out there and then lend a helping hand and collaborate so we can grow together. Gordon can then present the product to his customers and show them that they are innovating.”

Through the partnership, GFS representatives can point to the Dexai robot as one of many solutions for restaurants and food service businesses struggling with labor shortages.

Right now, the Alfred robot is about half the speed of a human, which makes it perfect for some environments, but it’s not yet ready for the big leagues of fast food.

“One thing we love, especially about our partnership with Gordon, is that we can work with different clients with different needs,” Johnson said. “We can deploy it and it will start working in the back of the house where it shouldn’t be as fast. Then we present it to customers and it has to be faster, and then we go to fast food and it’s the fastest and most demanding environment.”

In the future, Dexai hopes to create comparable robots that will perform other tasks such as preparing drinks, frying and cooking in the oven.

kitchen helpers

Johnson said he expects and welcomes more competitors to enter the market due to a shortage of workers in the food business.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “This means that operators can have a lot of choice and it shows that the mindset is changing. We really see this as the right way for operators to address the challenges they face during and after the pandemic. I think we will see a lot more digitization of the entire restaurant and food service.”

Relish Works is tasked with seeking innovation in both food and food technology to help GFS build and leverage partnerships.

Relish Works also operates the Food Foundry, an accelerator program that welcomes startups focused on both food and food technology innovation.

The accelerator, which completed Group 4 this spring, hosted startups such as EZ-Chow, which developed a multi-channel digital ordering and marketing platform for restaurants. Also included in this cohort was Forever Ware, which created a system of reusable takeout containers and cups that customers borrow and return to avoid having to deliver trash to takeout.

The most recent cohort of eight companies focused on health, sustainability and social impact, including tenants such as Confetti Fine Foods, a maker of salvaged vegetable and mushroom chips.

“Our role is to be global and find best-in-class companies so that GFS can continue to innovate and remain the top distributor in North America,” said Tyler Booth, head of investment at Relish Works.

“We found that Dexai knows that workforce was a problem in restaurants even before the pandemic. Labor resources were a problem two to five years before the pandemic. We really went there and saw that robotics was coming, so who is the best in class company that can really help our customers, from independent food operators to regional chains? Dexai has really risen to the top with this research and outreach.”

As part of the joint growth, Dexai will gain significant publicity by taking part in a series of six GFS catering shows this fall.

Through partnerships with companies like Dexai, executives say GFS can effectively stay at the forefront of food production even as a 125-year-old company.

“We see different points or hot spots within the four walls of a restaurant where innovation happens, but it always happens in coordination with people,” Booth said. “Humans will be the conductors of the robots, but all that creativity and emotional intelligence will still live in the human.”

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