Plenty Inc., a vertical agriculture company, has an unusual selling point: its crops of arugula, kale and microgreens are grown in an indoor farm run by robots. That hasn’t always been a winning proposition. Two years ago, the company had to scale back an ambitious international expansion plan, realizing it wasn’t ready to bear the cost of pricey new markets despite having taken more than $200 million in funding.
But now, with coronavirus heightening food safety concerns, Plenty has a fresh angle. From planting through harvest, its vegetables don’t encounter human hands, meaning fewer chances for viral contamination.
Before the pandemic, robot-prepared food companies were a hit with investors, but ambitious sales goals didn’t materialize. Last year, robot coffee maker Cafe X shuttered locations and robotic pizza-chef Zume pivoted to different businesses. Zume raised $375 million from SoftBank in 2018 to support its vision of having machines assemble pizzas in the back of moving vehicles. Since then, the company has cut 360 employees, put its double-decker party bus up for sale at a discount and refocused on sustainable packaging.
Many glorified robotic food companies couldn’t realize the cost savings needed to justify their research and development and equipment, even if they were able to hire fewer humans. COVID-19 concerns have hit food preparation particularly hard, upending restaurants’ typical revenue. Now, the coronavirus has given those companies a new hook for human-free preparation. At Plenty, shipments are now about 30 percent higher than before the pandemic struck, in part because the greens filled gaps at grocery stores whose normal supply chains were disrupted.
Even at large companies, hands-off assembly processes have become a focus of advertising. On its website under the section COVID-19 Updates, Pizza Hut notes: “Your pizza leaves our 400+ degree oven and slides hands free into the box so the only person who touches it after it comes out of the oven, is you.”
But the pandemic has not been a total blessing for food tech companies. Spyce, a venture-backed restaurant in Boston that relies on a robotic kitchen, had already closed late last year to allow for more meal customization. Now, the pandemic has delayed the necessary construction and reopening by months.
The complexity of building robotic systems could keep more restaurants from embracing the technology. But as the pandemic lingers and people become more tolerant of robots, Plenty may be onto something.