It was peak lunch hour in Bengaluru one spring afternoon, and at a cloud kitchen, or a commercial cooking space strictly made for delivery in one of the city’s residential districts, dozens of chefs and delivery workers were getting order after order cooked, packed, and out the door. The scene was chaotic at first glance: delivery workers shuffling around with their insulated backpacks by the pickup counter, the sizzle of hot oil, orders for dishes like biryani and chana masala yelled across the cramped room. But the kitchen wasn’t like most others across India—it was semi-automated.
The parathas were crisped and dropped on a plate by a flat bread maker. Falafels and fries placed in a motorized basket were automatically descended into perfect-temperature oil in a smart fryer, and an impinger oven pushed out hot pizzas. Once done, a quality control manager measured the food’s weight and temperature. The result: a perfectly packaged box of hot food made within 12 minutes of receiving the order.
“It’s the only way a rider would be able to deliver the food within 30 minutes of it being ordered” to meet the company’s promised delivery time, said the ghost kitchen’s manager, who spoke with Rest of World anonymously due to a corporate NDA. His kitchen works machines made by Mukunda Foods, a Bengaluru-based kitchen automation and robotics company. The manager said the kitchen processes upward of 200 orders a day.
Unlike Western cuisine, which has long adopted kitchen mechanization with tools like automated pizza sauce dispensers or smart fryers, Indian food — with its complex flavors, varied ingredients, and multiple cooking steps — is associated with a culture and tradition that resists automation. But the steep growth in India’s food delivery industry has fueled the rise of the robo-chef.
Meanwhile, cloud kitchens using automated production lines are replacing line chefs and dine-in spaces entirely, servicing a class of Indians who value speed and convenience. It’s a marked shift from traditional Indian food culture, where dhaba-style food stalls are serviced by skilled labor. With the country’s food delivery market expected to grow to 12 million daily deliveries on an average by 2024, automated cooking may be the future of India’s food.
When pandemic-related lockdowns became widespread in India last year, many restaurant workers — along with millions of other laborers — left urban areas to return to their home villages. That left a market opportunity both for high-tech cloud kitchens and the manufacturers building automated food production hardware.
Founded in 2012 by Eshwar Vikas and Sudeep Sabat, Mukunda Foods offers 14 varieties of automated cooking equipment that can produce complex Indian dishes like biryani or butter chicken as well as noodles and pasta. Caterers, restaurant owners, and ghost kitchens across the country were desperate to keep their kitchens running during the pandemic, says Mukunda CEO Vikas, and his robo-chefs could provide a solution. Mukunda is one of the over half a dozen Indian companies providing automated cooking devices. It’s also one of the oldest in the industry. Newer companies include Hi Arya, a robotic chai maker, and RoboChef, which can whip up 800 different dishes, using its fully automated device.
Before the pandemic, “people thought they didn’t need the kind of change that automation could bring to their kitchens,” Vikas told Rest of World. “They couldn’t fully comprehend the long-term advantages, both in terms of manual labor and finance.” Vikas said that, after the lockdowns, the “order book kept piling up” at Mukunda Foods. Before the pandemic, the company sold an average of 500 machines yearly, but since October 2020, they’ve already sold 600. Vikas says his orders are worth over $14 million.
Many of the machines in Mukunda Foods’ R&D office automate simple steps in classic Indian dishes. There’s the Dosamatic, which can make one savory rice-and-lentil crêpe per minute; the Wokie, which simulates the constant movement of a chef cooking on a wok; the RiCo, a rice and noodle cooker, and the Biryani Bot. The machines are not humanoid — none have robotic arms or hands — but rather small-scale industrial equipment that handles repetitive tasks like tossing and stirring, freeing up that time for a kitchen staff to double up on other tasks.
Vikas said that, while the food prepared in his kitchens is made by a machine, the recipes still come from a human chef. Wherever Mukunda deploys a Wokie, for instance, a company promoter spends time with a chef to help calibrate their recipes to the machine. Wokie is used for both Chinese and Indian recipes. “If the chef is making paneer makhani,” explains Vikas, “the machine will record the temperature when the chef added the butter, the quantity. Did he mix it fast or slow? Did he stir or toss?” In this way, the dishes Indian chefs prepare by taste and memory are copied with scientific accuracy.
“After this, all one has to do is stand in front of the wok,” Vikas said, proudly standing by one of his Wokies. “It is the magic of the chef being re-created by the machine.”
Machines like Wokie are now making their way into cloud kitchens across India. Rebel Foods started out in 2011 as a restaurant selling wraps under the brand Faasos but pivoted to a cloud kitchen model within two years because of high rents. The kitchens became practically invisible as they were shifted off the main street or in to the back of a building on the first floor, saving them significant rent money. The company now has ten-plus food brands — for a wide spectrum of cuisines — across 350 such ghost kitchens in India and over 70 kitchens in six other countries, including the U.K. and Singapore.
As the oldest ghost kitchen purveyors in India, Rebel Foods has been automating since 2014 , when it began to scale to more cuisines and locations. “For us, automation is not just about reducing labor costs or substituting labor,” said Raghav Joshi, chief executive officer of the Rebel Foods’ India business. Joshi says they experiment with creating their dishes manually before automating the recipe. If the manual process takes up to 15 minutes, robotics engineers team up with their in-house chefs to automate the process so that it’s the “same product experience in a much quicker time.” Joshi said it’s helped them reduce food preparation time by 25%–30%.
Automating cooking does more than just speed up the process, though. “It’s more about having better control and consistency of the product,” said Joshi. “Every single time, the product comes out with the exact same consistency.” As the Travis Kalanick–backed company looks to expand the presence of its automated kitchens further, it is reportedly hoping to raise at least $200 million and is seeking a $2 billion valuation.
Not all cloud kitchens are automated. Many look like that of Saurabh Jha, who runs a model of cloud kitchens called Kitchens@ that houses as many as 80 brands for fast deliveries and increased presence. Jha believes the solution to growing delivery food services at scale in India lies in a centralized kitchen that prepares base foods like gravy and biryani masala with last-mile prep like freshly cooked rice done at a local kitchen.
“I’m not saying automation doesn’t work,” said Jha. “But the likelihood of it creating value is low because the economics work very differently in the U.S. and India. The Indian food service industry, with 1.5 million restaurants and eateries, employs more than 7 million people, a number that is expected to grow to 9.2 million in the coming few years. A kitchen staff in India is paid anything between $220 and $275 (16,000 to 20,000 rupees) monthly for clocking eight hours a day, six days a week.
And with manpower cost in India being as low as $1.70 per hour, both cost of delivery and preparation of food can be economical for restaurant owners without having to turn to automation devices that cost up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Others, however, argue that automation can help staff upgrade to performing higher value tasks in the kitchen and can also push restaurant owners to open up more branches and redeploy some of their employees to the new outlet.
But India’s hesitancy to automate food prep goes beyond the raw economics of labor. In his 2020 book Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking, Krish Ashok says there’s a pervasive culture of meals prepared traditionally, even in households that can afford conveniences like microwave ovens. “The kind of culture we have that is obsessed with freshly cooked meals, combined with the fact that most men don’t cook because patriarchy leads to the assumption that women will just make fresh food for the family, has led to a low adoption of kitchen gadgets in Indian homes,” said Ashok. This expectation has meant that, while the average Indian might now own a smartphone or a laptop, appliances like dishwashers, microwaves, and coffee makers are still a rarity in many homes.
“In India, [the influx of convenience devices] really just started in the last 10 or 20 years. But with other convenience automation machines, there still hasn’t been enough innovation — both in the B2C space as well as the B2B space,” he said, adding that this can change as more Indian women start working. “Right now, women in India spend some 5 to 6 hours in the kitchen. Once more women work, a demand for kitchen devices will go up — both at home and, by extension, in the industry.”
Chefs remain skeptical of automation too. Vikas says restaurant owners who visit Mukunda Foods offices often bring their chefs, who are almost always skeptical of how a robot could help them. “They question how a machine can make food without any kind of human intervention,” he said.
But as India slowly emerges from a deadly second wave of Covid-19 and a second round of lockdowns, Vikas says more and more customers are reaching out to him. One existing client is looking at launching 100 new ghost kitchens and wants to automate each of them, while another top client of Mukunda is looking at adding automation equipment to 30 more kitchens. Vikas has recently also been approached by some unexpected customers: home chefs and hospitals.
“Home chefs started seeing more demand from customers and wanted to increase output without having to hire anyone, so some of them bought our machines,” says Vikas. “And this time, with many hospitals being stretched thin, a lot of their kitchen staff fell sick, so they also bought machines from us.”