You'll never guess who's in this kitchen

In the kitchen that One Mean Chicken shares with sister restaurants Thai 76 and Surya Tiffins, two engineers sit in front of two laptops. One engineer taps his keyboard a couple of times, and the cooking process is set in motion.

There are no cooks in the kitchen. Instead there is a whirring noise and a calm you don't expect to feel in a restaurant kitchen as a robotic arm reaches for the ingredients, drops them in a pan over a gas flame and starts stirring.

Soon even the engineers won't be in the kitchen.

Welcome to what Nala Robotics founder and CEO Ajay Sunkara calls the world's first fully automatic robotic kitchen located in the food court of Naperville's Mall of India.

If the 1960s futuristic animated sitcom "The Jetsons" is coming to mind, you're on the right track.

You can imagine executive chef Michael Tsonton's reaction after answering Sunkara's wanted ad for a consultant. Nothing about the ad suggested the unique situation Tsonton was about to enter.

"His consulting ad, they weren't giving away too much (information), and I've done a lot of consulting in my career. I've had a small consulting company for three years and I've solved a lot of problems for people ... but when they showed me the videos and stuff, it was poof, mind-blowing," Tsonton said with a laugh. "And every day I'm around it, it still takes my breath away. It's very cool."

It's a feeling Sunkara knows well, even five years after he started developing the concept for his Arlington Heights-based company.

"To be honest with you, it's fun to watch the robots work," he said. "Seeing it for five years I still get chills sometimes."

Sunkara has big plans for those kitchen robots. He's opening another group of restaurants in Elgin, to be followed by Logan Square in Chicago. There are plans for 10 Nala-owned restaurants across the nation in 2022, 100 by 2024.

Sunkara's AI cooks can prepare just about any kind of cuisine - fried chicken, burgers, pizza, salads, Thai, Indian, Mexican, etc. - and can do it more efficiently and cheaply than a human chef, he said.

Nala robots are certified by Underwriters Laboratories and NSF International, both of which took their time before awarding their seals of approval.

"Even for them it's the first time," Sunkara said of NSF and UL. "They haven't seen such kind of thing before. They worked with us a lot, in fact."

For now the plating and servicing processes are still done by humans, at least in Version 1.0. Version 2.0, expected next summer, will be faster and more efficient, Sunkara said.

A customer can walk up to a restaurant and by inserting a credit card or phone number, Nala computers will recall the customers' preferences from the cloud, even adjusting spice amounts to meet those preferences.

The AI restaurant concept is coming at a good time, with so many businesses struggling with a worker shortage. Sunkara rejects the idea that his robots are taking jobs from people. Just the opposite, he said.

"We will be creating a lot of small business owners and entrepreneurs with the help of Nala, in fact. We believe with the job market part of it, we'll actually be creating more jobs than taking away jobs," Sunkara said.

Soon, he said, Nala robots will be working 24/7 to crank out meals that can be frozen and sold in grocery stores. And a miniature version for homes will be available in 2024, he added.

The Jetsons can't wait to try it.

A fully robotic kitchen in the food court of Naperville's Mall of India.
A fully robotic kitchen in the food court of Naperville's Mall of India.
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