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Rise of the ramen bots

Downtown business employees slurp up soup from vending machine

As a self-professed ramen fan, Brandon Do has visited nearly all the noodle houses in downtown Mountain View. But his latest favorite spot to grab a hot bowl of ramen is sort of a secret, unlisted by Yelp, 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 this ramen spot is actually a vending machine at his company's kitchen. Last month, Do's 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 tonkotsu, $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 the dish cooked to the right consistency without bloating the noodles 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 also featured similar bots designed to produce sushi, french fries and salads. In Mountain View, Zume Pizza has an assembly line of robots designed to make a margarita pie just as good 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 Voice 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 they keep the revenues from 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 was 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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Comments

11 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 1, 2019 at 12:08 pm

I have to question companies that are installing these machines for their employees. Ramen is fine in moderation, but it is very high in calories and salt so eating it every day is terrible for your weight and blood pressure. I hope the companies also offer their employees healthier meal options, especially with large portions of fresh fruits and vegetables.


8 people like this
Posted by Common sense
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 1, 2019 at 1:04 pm

Common sense is a registered user.

"resident:" I'm with you on the fresh fruits and vegetables. However, Japanese ramen per-se is just "wheat noodles" (fresh noodles, ideally) and if the finished dish happens to have salt (or -- even less obvious in real ramen houses -- fat), then that's a function of the broth and garnishes the noodles are served with, and is under the cook's control. So it is not accurate to make a blanket claim like "it is very high in calories and salt." Ramen is not inherently "very high in" anything besides grain and water content.

The claim would be accurate if referring to those instant so-called "ramen" products sold in packages in supermarkets (based on dry cakes of noodles precooked by deep frying, and on heavily salted powdered fake "broth" base). But that is a hokey offshoot concept of "ramen" and not this article's context. It refers plainly to the "ramen house" restaurants, serving freshly cooked (and even freshly made -- Maru Ichi has a booth up front where the manager makes noodles and can be watched from Castro Street) noodles in broth of choice, garnished with various vegetables, thinly shaved chashu pork, etc.


Like this comment
Posted by Tired of our infrastructure
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Feb 1, 2019 at 2:35 pm

Developed countries put their utility lines underground... I guess we live in Silicon Valley, the poster place for all things advanced... or maybe not so when you take a closer look.


3 people like this
Posted by William Hitchens
a resident of Waverly Park
on Feb 1, 2019 at 4:43 pm

William Hitchens is a registered user.

I worked for a telecom startup at the height of the telecom boom --- 2000 and 2001. The pressure was fierce, and "extremely unhealthy" food helped alleviate the resulting stomach pains and hunger from too much free coffee. They served "free" lunches during mandatory daily engineering meetings (always fat&salt-laden pizza and sub sandwiches), and they had a stocked pantry of dangerous junk food like pop tarts, cup-o-noodles, and candy. I got hooked on ramen, and gained 25 lbs in those 2 years, and my blood pressure spiked. Like almost all overly-greedy telecom (and dot.com) startups, they went broke and into Chapter 11 and I was furloughed for 6 months. That time off gave me a chance to clean up my diet, exercise daily, and lose more than those 25 lbs.

They gave us that food to keep us happy and productive, and they didn't give a damn about our health. I'm very happy to say that all of their venture capital sharks went broke, all of the senior management were discredited and fired, and the rest of us went on to better, far less abusive jobs.


6 people like this
Posted by Reader X
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Feb 1, 2019 at 6:47 pm

Commenter "Common sense" is correct.

Ramen typically served in ramen shops are made with fresh noodles. There is very little fat in the noodles and not much from the broth. It's the shelf-stable instant ramen stuff that's decidedly less healthy.

That begs the question. What sort of noodles are being used in the machine? What ingredients are being used in the broth?

The machine produces a convenient, effortless meal.

Ramen isn't inherently bad as "resident" claims. After all, ramen is a very common working person's lunch in Japan and they have the highest life expectancy of all major industrialized nations.

Ramen has the same underpinnings as similar, much older Japanese noodle dishes: udon, soda, etc. A noodle in a flavored broth with some garnishes (animal proteins and vegetables).

If you look at a 19th century Italian cookbook, many of the pasta recipes are named "_____ in brodo." That's right, in broth. Broth is an excellent medium for cooked noodles and pretty much any country on this planet that makes noodles also has soup with noodles.

Bashing ramen is myopic and shows a lack of understanding of a basic food type that humans have been eating for centuries.


1 person likes this
Posted by resident
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 1, 2019 at 8:34 pm

For those of you who think ramen is healthy, here is the nutritional breakdown of a typical bowl of restaurant ramen. Web Link

It is loaded with fat and has a dangerous amount of sodium. Calorie count is more than a Big Mac while vitamin content is very poor. This is for miso ramen, which is one of the most popular flavors. Tonkotsu ramen (another popular flavor) has even more calories as well a dangerous amount of cholesterol.

If this is the easiest lunch for employees to get and they are eating it every day, that is just like handing out diabetes and heart attacks.


1 person likes this
Posted by Jes' Sayin'
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Feb 1, 2019 at 11:32 pm

Pretty much all modern ramens that are around these days suck. The reason is that they CHEAT. They all add BUTTER into the broth. Making a good ramen broth is a challenge, but everyone will like it if it a stick or two of flavorful butter in it. But this is not ramen. Not really.

Philz Coffee has the same problem, by the way.

People should stop and think about that they're paying for.


1 person likes this
Posted by Ed
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Feb 2, 2019 at 8:23 am

It's not "tonkAtsu" it's, tonkOtsu.

the former is a fried cutlet, the latter is a bone broth.


4 people like this
Posted by Common sense
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 2, 2019 at 12:10 pm

Common sense is a registered user.

"resident:" You've supplanted your earlier blanket assertion ("it is very high in calories and salt") -- inaccurate, as explained above -- with a selected narrow example (I could have even offered better ones for the same rhetorical point, but why???) I question your huge assumptions, and efforts to counter claims no comment made ("those of you who think ramen is healthy," "eating it every day"). Again: ramen is a genre, it can have more or less healthy preparations. Like most foods. What about that don't you understand?

Pronouncements like "eating it every day is terrible for your weight and blood pressure" follow a long tradition of simplistic, good/bad nutritional sloganeering (often with an attitude of enlightening the benighted):

"Avoid nuts, they're just calories, mainly fat." [Completely wrong-headed: common nuts contain omega-3 components now known to be essential nutrients.] "Tropical oils are bad for you, use artifically hydrogenated vegetable oils instead because they're polyunsaturated." [Disastrous consequences.] "Never eat eggs, their yolks contain cholesterol" [It was already well established that dietary cholesterol has little to do with blood-cholesterol levels, an essential biochemical produced inside the body regardless.] People love to absorb and dispense simplistic "health" slogans that make them feel virtuous.


Like this comment
Posted by DC
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Feb 2, 2019 at 4:01 pm

Just for comparison.
My can of pasta has 11% fat 13% sat fat 33% sodium.
Which is no where what home made pasta has.
But a breakdown of the machine version would be interesting.


2 people like this
Posted by Mark Noack
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 4, 2019 at 3:08 pm

Mark Noack is a registered user.

I had no idea that the nutrition value of ramen would prompt such a lively debate!

I can't speak for the specific sodium levels or carbs in a Yo-Kai ramen bowl, but the company does post the nutrition tables for each dish on their machine interface. Every consumer has the chance to review this before they make their final order.


14 people like this
Posted by Now we're a community!
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Feb 4, 2019 at 4:12 pm

"I had no idea that the nutrition value of ramen would prompt such a lively debate!"

You forget, if there are two people in the world with enough time and desire to actually debate the nutritional value of ramen, they'll find each other on the internet. Likely on some discussion board somewhere.
It was just a matter of time.


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