The human-operated bots can reduce emissions and make life easier for delivery and restaurant workers.
Zagat Stories presented Restaurants 21/22, a collection of interviews with leading voices in the hospitality, hospitality, food, technology, politics, and more industries. Every story takes the turning of the calendar as a turning point to ponder what happened in the world of restaurants and food in 2021, or is likely to happen in 2022. See all the stories here. Also take a look at last year’s collection.
Zach Rash is a 24-year-old surfer, environmentalist, robot freak, UCLA graduate, and CEO of Coco, a remote controlled robot food delivery service that launched in Santa Monica in October 2020. Coco currently has hundreds of robots wandering the streets of Los. roam Angeles and plans to expand nationwide with an army of new robots in 2022. Next stop: Miami.
Grocery delivery is big business, and it has gotten many restaurants through the pandemic. Delivery demand has exceeded driver supply, so delivery quality and customer experience have decreased. It doesn’t seem like a problem that will ever get better as the delivery keeps growing.
With Coco, we want to help companies increase their delivery in a more sustainable way – sustainable for the environment and sustainable for their business so that the money stays in their business. We help local businesses to get in touch with local customers. That narrative was really powerful for us, especially during the pandemic when restaurants were struggling to reach their customers.
Currently, our robots are fully operated by human drivers who have been hired and trained by the company. Our drivers are not contractors. They are W2 employees and the job is much more accessible and less stressful than that of a delivery driver. You work from home and don’t need a car – just a computer and an internet connection.
Restaurant workers load a delivery robot. Photo: Courtesy of Coco.
Anyone can do this once they graduate from the pilot’s academy, which includes around 30 hours of training. After their completion, we start our drivers with return journeys for deliveries that are not so time-sensitive. You simply give the bot back to the nearest dealer. The most senior pilots will work in the most complex locations, which have the greatest volume. Chief pilots manage other pilots, create shifts and schedules, and help with training.
Our pilot community is great. We pretty much build it out of recommendations, with existing pilots recommending their friends and family. They have their own channels in our Slack company and are virtually related. Many of them play video games. That’s one of the qualities we’ve found that make you a good pilot.
Coco advertises our job vacancies using many of the same search terms used for other delivery roles. Many of our employees had previously worked as gig workers for auto-based delivery platforms in the delivery area and came to Coco to escape the vagaries of gig work and avoid the need to add extra wear and tear on their own vehicles. You work as a pilot, field technician, and in a variety of other roles. These are better jobs with more security, benefits, and growth opportunities.
We started Coco in Santa Monica because the city is launching a zero-emission delivery zone program and incentivising companies to take cars off the road. It was a great fit because they’ve already thought about it and invested resources to start this type of program. There is a lot of great food on Main Street and all over downtown Santa Monica, and we built the product by showing it to vendors on the first day. We built a robot very quickly and had some of my college friends control it from their computers.
We had some ideas on how we could solve delivery problems, but we wanted to learn and develop it with our customers. Santa Monica was a great place to do this because there were so many vendors willing to adopt a new technology. Alfalfa was one of our first customers and they helped us refine the process of employees working with robots. We started working with SBE and their Santa Monica locations, Umami Burger and Krispy Rice, so we worked on standardizing the process in some stores.
Coco CEO and Co-Founder Zach Rash. Photo: Courtesy of Coco.
It was a pretty crazy ride. A year ago it was just me and Brad Squicciarini, my co-founder. We used to handle deliveries. And when something happened we would play rock, paper, scissors to see who had to jump out and pick it up to make sure the order got there on time. We still have the same attention to detail on every single job, even though we now have a few hundred employees.
We’re hiring like crazy right now and I spend 90% of my time recruiting. We raised $ 43 million and that allows us to scale up quickly. We’re all over LA, preparing for the end of the year to begin expanding across the country. We’ve primed our operations team to ensure the vehicles can handle a wide variety of environments and thrive in the conditions of Miami and other states with harsher weather. The vehicle is designed and tested for operation at temperatures between -20 and 60 degrees Celsius, the battery is waterproof and the charging module is sealed. It is also splash-proof and designed for operation through 15 cm of standing water.
For most of the restaurants we work with, delivery is an integral part of their business. The staff at these restaurants really appreciate their ability to manage and organize delivery. Delivery can get a little messy during the food rush. Having an organized line of robots instead of couriers was one of the biggest selling points. I thought this would be a downside, but it’s pretty much the favorite part of service for the restaurant staff. It makes delivery more efficient. The delivery does not always bring your food in the best condition. We usually get it to its destination 30% faster than other services, and it’s kept much better because it’s in the robot all the time.
Usually the handover to the courier is only logistical if you order food for delivery. It’s not an experience that anyone loves. With our first robots, it was quite an event. Returning customers will still come out and follow the robot, especially kids. Every day a family ordered and the child waited outside for it. And all the neighborhood kids came out and it was like a block party. Parents loved to order just for the kids to come out and play with the robot.
Recently someone sent me a video on LinkedIn of their kid sitting on the curb waiting for the Coco robot, and she runs out and hugs the robot tightly. That’s really cool. We’re trying to save companies money and improve the overall food delivery experience. But it’s cool to see how the communities react to that.
We’re working with the City of Santa Monica to understand our impact on emissions, and by the first quarter of next year we’re well on our way to reducing 27,000 pounds of CO2 every day. That is quite a significant impact in such a short term in a small region. If you multiply that by our continued growth and the introduction of cleaner, more efficient technology – that’s one of the things I’m most proud of.
I ran an environmental club in high school, grew up a surfer, and spent my life doing beach cleanings. So quantifying this type of impact is very special.
We have a zero percent cancellation policy. We refuse to allow an order to go undelivered. What if you have a catastrophic outage and the robots are down? Merchants do not want to sign up for a new technology and take part in a test run if that could affect the customer experience. We always have a human presence with our field service team available in case they need to physically intervene.
It used to be pretty common when we hit the market. You build a robot in one night and throw it on the street. Sometimes they break or the battery is dead. Brad and I ran around trying to save the deliveries. It is now a much smaller part of our deliveries. But even if it’s only a few deliveries out of a few thousand a night, it’s still important. We want to catch it somehow and not just ruin someone’s night.
However, we are constantly improving our robots. We have a completely new design in early December, which is much larger than the current one. We don’t fit pizzas into our current robot. The new fleet can hold 18-inch pizzas and up to four shopping bags and is therefore suitable for all retailers. We put in a pretty advanced suspension system to make it a lot smoother and handle uneven terrain a little better. It was designed from the ground up for our use case. With the original robots, it was our goal to only build them from off-the-shelf parts and bring them into the hands of the dealers.
Coco robots are basically like scooters with a loading platform. It’s the same motors, wheels, and batteries. The device itself is not complicated. Thanks to the popularity of electric scooters, we didn’t have to develop this supply chain from scratch, and it accelerated our ability to get Coco to dealerships quickly. We have a couple of manufacturing partners and we get various sub-assemblies sent out, but we do the final assembly here in California.
It is more complicated to develop the best robot for dealer workflows. For example, in our new fleet, we’ve added QR codes above and you can place any order in any robot. We used to assign an order to a robot. Now you can scan each robot and it will be unlocked, then place the order and let us know which order you have placed. We added a keyboard as this is sometimes faster for some dealers and you can scan the order number instead of typing it in. We also made the robots bigger because we work with a lot of ghost kitchens and drive-thrus. This makes it easier for them to access it through a window.
We currently have thousands of robots in action. We want to replace most car journeys when it’s only a two or three mile radius. How many cars will it take to support the top 10 cities in the US and how many robots would it take to replace them? We are adjusting to this magnitude today. That should be almost 100,000 robots.