The Robot-Driven Korean Fried Chicken Chain That's On The Rise In 2023

2023 is technically the Year of the Rabbit according to the Lunar calendar, but it's also shaping up to be the Year of the Robot. Writers, visual artists, and other creative workers might be privy to the recent buzz (read: mild panic) over artificial intelligence programs such as ChatGPT, which can form sophisticated sentences, render images into digital paintings, and even write stories and poems. In the Wall Street Journal, Christopher Reid reflects on the collective fear that AI technology "will make human creativity obsolete." For the sake of ourselves and others, we certainly hope that's not the case. 

At the Korean fried chicken chain Chicken, they're embracing automation with open arms. The small franchise, which stands for "best of the best quality," has just over 100 locations in the United States. Still, it's not likely to get lost in the crowded market of chicken spots that stemmed from the infamous "Chicken Sandwich Wars" of 2019, which reignited Americans' obsession with crispy poultry. What makes special? It wants to rely on robots to fill its orders. 

Inside the Smart Kitchen Chicken boasts the "finest, crispiest, juiciest, flakiest, hottest, sweetest, tastiest" fried chicken in the biz. Its recipes are developed at its eponymous Chicken University in Seoul, South Korea, where it was founded in 1995, "to keep on the cutting edge of quality and flavor." Now, the chain is attempting to make a name for itself not just for its chicken, but also for its automated Smart Kitchen. 

Back in September, Restaurant Business reported on the chain's new "labor-efficient format" for fulfilling orders, in which customers could order food online or from a kiosk and pick it up from a locker. "That seems to be the trend with restaurants nationwide," CEO Joseph Kim told the outlet. "As little interaction as possible is the goal and making it convenient." At the time of the report, the Smart Kitchen was being tested in Englewood, New Jersey. According to The Takeout, the chain has already introduced "robot servers" and a "robotic fry cook" to several South Korean locations. 

Big chains are in on the trend

Joseph Kim is right in identifying automated transactions as a national trend at quick-service restaurants — and it's not just small chains. Have you been inside a McDonald's recently? The franchise has beefed up its mobile ordering technology in recent years, and many locations feature self-ordering kiosks, which were first introduced in 2015. 

Despite The Onion's claims, the kiosks do not cry when you yell at them. Still, some customers are still wary of touch-screen contraptions. Back in October, McDonald's manager Noah Anderson garnered over 11,000 views on TikTok when he posted a video in which he promised that the new technology "is not replacing" human workers at the burger chain. "Just try to use it," he says. "It will not hurt you, I promise."

Evidence of the trend can also be found at Taco Bell. In April of 2021, the Mexican-American franchise opened its first fully digital location in Times Square. Just like the model at Chicken, customers can order online or from a kiosk and pick up their Crunchwrap Supremes from designated cubbies accessible through their order codes. Insider says KFC, Burger King, and Smashburger have also joined the food-locker trend.