china

How China’s Food Industry Became a Tech Battleground

Search engine operator Baidu and Tencent, the company behind WeChat, already dominate China’s tech world. Now, they have their sights set on robot restaurants and food delivery.

by Barclay Bram
26 October 2018, 8:00am

Robot.He, China’s first robot restaurant, gleams with the antiseptic charm of the future.

Located in a digital supermarket on the outskirts of Shanghai, diners sit at polished white tables, scan a QR code, open an app, order their food, and pay—all within a matter of seconds. Small artificial intelligence-powered robots, cuboid and bedecked in LED lights, deliver dishes directly to the table. The only humans are a single greeter at the entrance to explain the app, some cleaners, and the chefs themselves. Plans are already underway to replace the cleaners with cleaner-bots.

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Robot.He, a restaurant in Shanghai that uses artificial intelligence-powered robots. All photos by the author.
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Robot.He is more than just a glimpse into the sterilised future of server-less restaurants. The “disruption” (to borrow the tech term) on show at the restaurant, created by the interaction of AI and mobile payment technology, is just one example of the many ways in which China’s large tech companies plan on changing the food world. According to an interview with Hou Yi, the founder of the HeMa Supermarket chain that is building Robot.He restaurants, 70 percent of the entire kitchen process in his restaurant is already automated.

China’s tech industry is dominated by three companies. Baidu, the founder of China’s largest search engine; Alibaba, which owns the Chinese equivalent of eBay; and Tencent, which is behind the WeChat messaging app used by over a billion people. All three of these tech giants now have their sights set on food and beverage—not just restaurants, but delivery and grocery shopping too.

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Diners order from an app and have their food delivered to the table by robots on a central runway.
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On my visit to Robot.He, I begin by opening the HeMa app to view today’s menu. I opt for some dim sum and a giant sashimi platter, which comes to around £20 in total—not an outrageous price but also not a particularly cheap meal for Shanghai. The app allocates me a table, which sits alongside a small, polished runway where robotic cubes skim past, laden with dishes. They stop adjacent to diners and announce that the food has arrived in sing-song Mandarin. When the diners take their dishes, LED lights on top of the robots flash, as if in acknowledgement. The robots then retreat back towards the kitchen.

The HeMa app can also be used to buy groceries in the supermarket. In front of huge tanks of fresh fish and live seafood, customers select the catch they want, have it weighed, and scan a barcode with their phone camera. They can choose either to have the fish sent straight into the kitchen at Robot.He to be prepared while they finish shopping, or have it packed up and sent home. These deliveries take just 30 minutes. Door-to-door, my nearest HeMa Supermarket is 45 minutes away, once I’ve walked to and from the subway, which means that unless I was to jump on a scooter like the delivery guy, my shopping would beat me home.

Given China's history of food scandals—from plastic eggs and rat-meat chemically treated to taste like lamb to tainted milk powderclose to three-quarters of Chinese customers worry that the food they eat is harmful. By allowing customers to select the food themselves, HeMa Supermarket offers assurance that what they are buying is safe and fresh. Alibaba, a backer of the supermarket, also has plans to integrate food-tracking blockchain technology into the supply chain linked with its tMall shops.

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The HeMa Supermarket, in which houses the Robot.He restaurant, also sells groceries including live fish and seafood.
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Customers can order pay for seafood through the HeMa app and have it delivered to their home or prepared in the Robot.He restaurant.

But food delivery is the booming business in China. The country’s delivery market was worth roughly 240 billion yuan (US $37 billion) as of last year. In 2016, 256 million people in China used online food ordering services, which still leaves a huge potential upside for growth in a country of 1.4 billion people.

Currently, China has a duopoly of food delivery services, after Ele.me, Alibaba’s food delivery service, bought out Waimai from Baidu for an undisclosed sum in 2016. Ele.me is now valued at over $9.5 billion. Ele.me’s biggest rival is Meituan Dianping, whose delivery service controls 59.1 percent of the market and is backed by Tencent.

Meituan Dianping is more than just a delivery service, in fact. It’s a food and beverage giant with a valuation of more than US $60 billion. At the heart of the business is Dazhong Dianping, an app that functions as a combination Yelp and Groupon. Users can find any restaurant nearby, browse its deals, select their food, arrange the delivery, and pay—all through the same app and all within a few screen-taps.

The fight between Alibaba’s Ele.me and the Tencent-backed Meituan Dianping over delivery has led them both to subsidise the food on their platforms. In cities like Chengdu, where the battle for the food delivery market is fiercest, diners have found deals like fried rice for roughly 30p, delivered to their door at no extra cost.

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Sashimi platter.

Are robots the future of food? According to Hou Yi, the (non-artificial) brains behind Robot.He, the restaurant broke even within four months of opening, despite the huge fixed costs of the robots themselves. Robot.He does, of course, save on labour and the location is not in the city centre; it’s in Nanxiang, a far cheaper area of Shanghai close to the suburban sprawl of the outskirts. But HeMa bases its business model on being located in out-of-the-way places. It has the ability to deliver all the goods its sells and indeed, well over 50 percent of its customers choose to do this by ordering directly through the app without leaving their homes. This allows the company to leverage cheaper rents and brokers deals with struggling commercial districts to get preferential treatment.

Hou Yi does plan to open Robot.He locations in the city centre, once he’s ironed out some of the issues and managed to automate more of the kitchen. But it’s worth remembering that Robot.He is less about the robots themselves and more about showcasing the technology that Alibaba is using to try and outmanoeuvre its competitors. Digital supermarkets, robot-powered dining, and high-tech delivery are all part of a wider battle to win the payments war—and with it, the spoils of Chinese e-commerce.

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The fallout to this is likely to alter traditional dining experiences the world over, as these technologies get taken up in places beyond China. Robot.He is a glimpse into this future, but it won’t be for long. One of its Tencent-backed rivals is planning to open 1,000 fully automated restaurants by 2020.