The coolest vending machine in Silicon Valley dispenses…bowls of hot ramen?

The Yo-Kai Express “autonomous restaurant” now offers its noodles (and convenience) in 11 Bay Area locations. But can it compare to the real deal?

As a self-professed ramen fan, Brandon Do has visited nearly all the noodle houses in downtown Mountain View. But his current favorite spot to grab a hot bowl of ramen is sort of a secret, unlisted by Google Maps and similar sites. This place never has a long wait and it’s consistently tasty, although you might say it lacks a human touch. That’s because Do’s favorite ramen spot is actually a vending machine at his company’s kitchen. Last month, his employer Pure Storage installed an automated ramen machine in its office kitchen to feed its hungry workers on the go.

The machine, a Yo-Kai Express, can produce a bowl of ramen that aims to rival any restaurant. At lunchtime last week, Do watched as his coworkers stepped up to the machine, put in their orders on the touchscreen and waited as the machine buzzed with the sounds of whirring motors and churning broth.

In 45 seconds, a little compartment opened up with a steaming bowl of noodles inside. After peeling back the plastic cover, the dish displayed all the hallmarks of ramen: chewy noodles, savory broth, nori, sliced pork and even fish cakes.

It’s fair to say this Yo-Kai ramen machine is a far cry from the $1 instant Cup Noodles, and it’s priced accordingly. The latest selections include an $11 black garlic tonkatsu, $12 shrimp tempura and a $16 wagyu beef bowl.

The new Yo-Kai machine is already quite the popular lunchtime spot among the workforce. When it first debuted, the machine reportedly had dozens of employees queueing up for a taste. About every other day, the Pure Storage ramen machine needs to be restocked, and employees say its most popular flavors always seem to be running out.

Yes, the taste doesn’t quite compare to a ramen bowl made the old-fashioned way (by humans), but Pure Storage employees regard it as a surprisingly good attempt. And on a busy workday, the convenience is unmatched, Do said.

“Being able to just order something and get it in 45 seconds? That’s a huge benefit,” Do said. “No one has the time to go out to eat at a place anymore, because they’re too busy.”

You might say the irony here is as thick as a rich miso broth. From Pure Storage’s offices in downtown Mountain View, it’s only a five-minute walk to get to four different Japanese ramen houses, not counting about a half-dozen nearby sushi restaurants that also serve noodle bowls. Yet Pure Storage company officials say their own engineering staff was requesting the ramen vending machine, and they were willing to give it a try.

The quaint comfort of brothy noodles appears to be the latest frontier in Silicon Valley’s rush to automate every step of the food system. For tech employers in particular, the Yo-Kai ramen machines appear to have a growing following. Yo-Kai already has 11 ramen machines in the Bay Area, including two at Tesla’s Fremont factory and another pair that soon will be installed at Netflix’s Los Gatos headquarters.

In his pitch to corporate customers, Yo-Kai’s founder Andy Lin says he highlights that his ramen machines are an easy workaround to the cost and labor challenges of setting up a company cafeteria. With one machine, companies have an easy way to feed workers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he said.

“In the modern city, rents are going up like crazy and you can’t find labor or chefs. But for us, all you need is just a power outlet and some maintenance staff,” he said. “For the company, you don’t have to waste time by having your employees going out to eat.”

Lin met for an interview at his company’s headquarters at the Plug and Play Tech Center in Sunnyvale. A trained electrical engineer, he worked for nearly a decade in the semiconductor industry before setting out on his own. His inspiration came in 2015 when he got off a 3 a.m. work call and was hungry for some hot soup, but the only nearby restaurant that was open was a Denny’s. He began pondering why no one had invented an automated soup stand.

About six months later, Lin finished his first Yo-Kai Express prototype — a giant, unwieldy contraption about the size of a minivan. Since then his ramen-makers have gotten smaller and more refined. His fourth-generation machine is roughly the size of two refrigerators.

In Japan, it is relatively common to order ramen or udon from an automated kiosk. Yo-Kai’s chief operations officer, Amanda Tsung, said that these devices are typically food-ticket stations where customers’ orders are actually prepared in a back kitchen. She boasted that Yo-Kai is the first truly automated restaurant. The technology could easily be re-engineered to make rice bowls, risotto, paella or any number of other dishes, she said as Lin nodded along.

“All we have to do is engineer the process for each type of food to get it to restaurant quality,” Lin said. “Any food can be automated, but it’s just a matter of keeping it healthy and safe.”

Naturally, many professional ramen chefs would beg to differ. Clint Tan, owner of the ramen pop-up Noodle in a Haystack, disputed that a vending machine could get noodles cooked to the right consistency without bloating or thickening the broth.

“When they say their ramen is as good as any restaurant that could be true … since there are a lot of mediocre and terrible restaurants that serve ramen using concentrate soup stock,” Tan said. “But if you compared what these Yo-Kai machines serve versus a legitimate ramen shop, I would definitely disagree.”

The idea of a vending machine is actually an incredibly old concept. The first such device is believed to have been invented roughly 2,000 years ago by the ancient mathematician Hero of Alexandria. His machine dispensed holy water when a coin was inserted into a slot. The technology didn’t really take off until the 19th century, when vending machines were designed to sell tobacco, stamps, gumballs and beverages. Selling food — especially freshly prepared food — via a vending machine has always been a much more challenging proposition.

In that sense, the Yo-Kai ramen machine is riding a growing wave of companies that are applying automation to other popular dishes, although not necessarily to be sold out of a vending machine. For example, San Francisco-based Momentum Machines has produced an automatic cheeseburger maker that can churn out 360 sandwiches per hour. A recent National Restaurant Association show featured bots designed to produce sushi, french fries and salads. In Mountain View, Zume Pizza has an assembly line of robots aspiring to make a margherita pie as well as a human chef.

Like Yo-Kai, these companies are convinced that labor demands will require the food industry to adopt automation. Lin is secretive about exactly how his machine works, declining to let a reporter take a peek inside. Most ingredients are prepared off-site and flash frozen, he said. When a customer makes an order, the machine quickly heats up the broth and cooks the rest of the meal.

Yo-Kai operates by charging companies $250 a month to maintain a ramen machine on site, and also keeps the revenues from its food sales. Lin’s company has been financed primarily by friends and family, but he expects it will soon begin taking in formal venture capital. Eyeing the future, he said he expected to someday have self-driving ramen food trucks and artificial intelligence algorithms to predict demand patterns.

“We’re not a restaurant company, we’re more of an internet of things company,” he said.

Just a few blocks from the Pure Storage headquarters and its Yo-Kai ramen-maker, the traditional sit-down noodle shop Ramen Izakaya Yu-Gen was preparing for the dinner rush. Owner Kotaro Komori said he had heard about the new ramen vending machine, but he still didn’t have a chance to try it out.

He had plenty of questions: How did they avoid overcooking their noodles? Did every bowl taste exactly the same?

But his biggest question was what the big appeal is for customers. If it’s a matter of convenience, his restaurant can make a bowl of ramen in two minutes, he said.

“(I thought that) customers attach special importance to the ambiance of a restaurant,” he said. “If a customer just wants to eat a quick ramen bowl, there’s some good Cup Noodles at the Japanese stores.”

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