Our Salad Robot Future

From knee surgery to salad
May 10, 2023

Way back in 2022, we predicted that our “sh*tty robot future” wouldn’t be the panacea it was cracked up to be. As we said in last year’s Visions Report: 

Our semi-autonomous future will be filled with side-glancing frustration at a world that almost works, but not quite the way we had hoped. The more robots can do, the more opportunity there is for them to fail our expectations.

This week when Sweetgreen — yes, that overly-capitalized counter-serve salad restaurant-pretending-to-be-a-tech-company — opened its “Infinite Kitchen” employing a robot to make your salads, the internet went berserk.

“I want my salads made by a stoned teenager,” wrote business journalist Emily Sundberg on her Twitter. “Not a robot.” 

What is rarely considered is how the robot feels. Imagine going to robot school to be a knee surgeon but instead you make salads. Now even robots can fail to live up to the expectations of their parents and live with crushing student loan debt.

We joke. But this generation will probably complain that the millennials had that human experience taken away from them, too.

In reality, the saladbot is overdue. Sweetgreen acquired robotics startup Spyce in 2021 shortly after its IPO, and has been broadcasting a move to automated stores during earnings calls through 2022.

What will get lost in the discourse is the positive impact this will have on prices for the consumer. While premium brands experiment on the fringes with their white-collar $20 takeout salads, this kind of technology has the potential to transform our services economy into a knowledge economy.

In his book Post-Capitalist Society (1993), Peter Drucker developed the idea of the knowledge economy, arguing that knowledge, not capital or labor, would be the key economic resource in the future. He wrote:

This society in which knowledge workers dominate is in danger of a new 'class conflict' between the large minority of knowledge workers and the majority of workers who will make their living through traditional manual work or the service industries.

If you thought kale was bitter, you should see basic white girls reacting to saladbot. If our robot future is more salad than sh*t, we should be thankful that it begins with menial ephemera (like salad). For Sweetgreen, labor costs are anything but sweet — labor was the largest expense on the PNL for Q1 earnings for the chain. Automation could result in higher margins, a turnaround in performance, licensing of the tech, and those sweet, sweet tech valuations that they’ve been chasing all along.

As we slowly socialize to the idea of automation everywhere, we’ll realize that the productivity gains result in lower prices, and have a deflationary effect overall on a booming economy. Or, at least, that’s what we’d hope (and the Congress would ensure).

Displacing a waste of human labor so that we can realize the totality of human potential, while lowering the cost of living? That’s the future of commerce.

Let’s hope it doesn’t disappoint.

— Phillip

P.S. This week’s featured essay unveils an emergent subcultural behavior — something we’re calling Mockup Culture. In it we examine how the culture of “mocking up” popular social media apps, and similar behaviors, are a new form of individual participation that will lead to heightened customer expectations. Read Insiders #148: The Rise of Mockup Culture.

Belt Tightening. Some of us, but definitely not the people reading this newsletter, got a little spendy during the pandy-years. Now it looks like thrifty is en vogue as consumers peel back spending habits. BNPL apps are starting to reject users as they tighten up their credit standards to work toward higher profitability. Options for free returns are getting harder to find as companies turn to offering store credit over refunds. Even Amazon is giving customers $10 credit for picking up their orders over delivery. The times, they are a-changing.

More Sights & Sounds. AI robotic arm technology seems to be moving us toward a future where Doctor Octopus can be our reality. Tech layoffs may finally be hitting a slowdown. Tempur Sealy is set to buy Mattress Firm and the mattress industrial complex must be stopped. OpenAI developer relations head says not to take the job title of Prompt Engineer. Deloitte has released six trends in digital commerce that will feed growth. Customers are struggling with tight budgets meeting self-checkout tipping screens. Nickelodeon’s rebrand points us to more data that inflatables might be trending — or that we’ve been misreading the brand name all this time and it’s actually: “Nichploopon.”

Photo: Lululemon

Dupe Flex. Lululemon is fighting dupe culture with… dupes. In a unique marketing strategy, the company is hosting an LA event on May 6-7, where shoppers can bring in their knock-off Align leggings and trade them for a free pair of legit Lulu.

Our Take: We recently defined the differences between a dupe, a rep, and a copycat brand. Knowing the difference helps to understand the tactic Lululemon is employing, while understanding how a competitor “dupe” brand could pose an existential threat in the long run. 
Takebacks are nothing new for fashion, this comes at a time when Lululemon has its competitors weaponizing dupe culture against them. Fabletics has been running performance marketing campaigns name-checking their $48B rival.
While the feud hasn’t yet escalated to full-on rap diss track, the competition is heating up. Rivals are outbidding for keywords, and programmatic SEO for “[x] Lululemon alternatives” abound.
Say what you will about dupes, Fabletics is wildly successful in its own right. The Kate Hudson-backed brand is nearing 100 brick-and-mortar locations, has eclipsed a $5B valuation, and they have celebrities like Lizzo as collaborators.

Fashion Collab. H&M has partnered with French Fashion house, Mugler, and the collection is def heavy on the mesh and lycra. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Paris, a Shein store had a huge line of people waiting outside for the store to open.

More Touch News. Maxine Bédat took to Twitter to sum up Banana Republic’s creative brief as “banana republic wants to be the restoration hardware of clothes” and we can’t stop thinking about it.

Photo: Velveeta

Seems Cheesy To Me. VELVEETA and LA-based chocolatier, Compartés, have partnered up to create “TruffVels.” The sweet and savory confections feature a hand-crafted white chocolate shell infused with the stunning salty flavor of cheese block product. What hath god wrought?

The Buffet Is Back. Covid took a real toll on the American pastime of eating from feeding troughs. Not to worry, though, buffets are making a tasty comeback — Pizza Ranch, Cicis, and Golden Corral are all up 125% in visitors since January 2021.

ElemenGPT My Dear Watson. The rapid consumer adoption of ChatGPT stands in stark contrast to the last generation of AI: IBM Watson. The former Jeopardy contestant’s silicon appeared on the airwaves in 2011 — 12 years ago —but never emerged as much more than a brand. The Atlantic believes that soon, even ChatGPT will be added to the mound of forgotten tech.

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