In fried-chicken-obsessed South Korea, restaurants serving the nation’s favorite 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 – by K-pop star Jungkook of BTS fame, fried chicken is deeply embedded in South Korean culture.
Paired with cold lager and known as “chimaek” – a portmanteau of the Korean words for chicken and beer – it is a staple of Seoul’s famed baseball-watching experience.
The domestic market – the world’s third largest, after the United States and China – is worth about seven trillion won (RM24.7bil), but labor 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 labor 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. “The market is huge,” Kang said at her Robert Chicken franchise. Chicken and pork cutlets are the most popular delivery orders in South Korea, and the industry could clearly benefit from more automation to “effectively address labor costs and workforce shortages”, she said.
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, said Kang. “We can now say with confidence that our robot fries better than human beings do,” she added.