11 September 2023| 25 Safar 1445
In fried-chicken-obsessed South Korea, restaurants serving the nation’s favourite fast-food dish dot every street corner. But Kang Ji-young’s establishment brings something a little different to the table: a robot is cooking the chicken.
Eaten at everything from tiny family gatherings to a 10-million-viewer live-streamed “mukbang” — eating broadcast, fried chicken is deeply embedded in South Korean culture.
The domestic market — the world’s third largest, after the United States and China — is worth about seven trillion won ($5.3 billion), but labour shortages are starting to bite as South Korea faces a looming demographic disaster due to having the world’s lowest birth rate.
Around 54% of business owners in the food service sector report problems finding employees, a government survey last year found, with long hours and stressful conditions the likely culprit, according to industry research.
Korean fried chicken is brined and double-fried, which gives it its signature crispy exterior, but the process — more elaborate than what is typically used by US fast food chains — creates additional labour and requires extended worker proximity to hot oil.
Enter Kang, a 38-year-old entrepreneur who saw an opportunity to improve the South Korean fried chicken business model — and the dish itself.
Kang’s robot, composed of a simple, flexible mechanical arm, is capable of frying 100 chickens in two hours — a task that would require around five people and several deep fryers.
But not only does the robot make chicken more efficiently — it makes it more delicious, says Kang.
“We can now say with confidence that our robot fries better than human beings do,” she said.
INVESTING IN ‘FOODTECH’
Already a global cultural powerhouse and major semiconductor exporter, South Korea last year announced plans to plough millions of dollars into a “foodtech” fund to help startups working on high-tech food industry solutions.
Seoul says such innovations could become a “new growth engine”, arguing there is huge potential if the country’s prowess in advanced robotics and AI technology could be combined with the competitiveness of Korean food classics like kimchi.
South Korea’s existing foodtech industry — including everything from next-day grocery delivery app Market Kurly to AI smart kitchens to a “vegan egg” startup — is already worth millions, said food science professor Lee Ki-won at Seoul National University.
Even South Korea’s Samsung Electronics — one of the world’s biggest tech companies — is trying to get in on the action, recently launching Samsung Food, an AI-personalised recipe and meal-planning platform, available in eight languages.
Lee predicted South Korea’s other major conglomerates are likely to follow Samsung into foodtech.
Entrepreneur Kang now has 15 robot-made chicken restaurants in South Korea, and one branch in Singapore.
A robot meticulously handles the frying process — from immersing chicken in oil, flipping it for even cooking, to retrieving it at the perfect level of crispiness, as the irresistible scent of crunchy chicken wafted through the shop.
The robot can monitor oil temperature and oxidation levels in real time while it fries chicken, ensuring consistent taste and superior hygiene.