SHANGHAI-Inside an office building in Shanghai’s Changning district, three robotic arms work simultaneously to cook, package and serve food they made behind glass screens. After scanning a QR code to place an order and pay, customers received freshly made meals.

The special “kitchen” with no human chefs has stirred interest among locals in the financial hub of China. The unmanned bento store was developed by Xi Xiang, a local catering company.

Mechanical engineer Zhao Jun’s daily job is to “talk” with the machines.

“After the chef develops a new dish, I convert the chef’s cooking process into machine language,” Zhao said, adding the robots are able to produce dishes that are comparable to those made by a chef. “Sometimes we are able to turn the chef’s new recipe into reality within a day,” Zhao said.

A graduate in material forming and control engineering, Zhao also enjoys cooking and did not expect the two seemingly unrelated pursuits could be integrated. “The most rewarding moment for me is seeing that after designing, assembling and debugging, the robots can make dishes comparable to a chef’s,” Zhao said.

Established in 2013, Xi Xiang provides integrated solutions for unmanned kitchens. Unmanned canteens and food carts developed by the company will be launched this year.

Although there are no employees in the kitchen, the robots still need experienced chefs to be their “mentors”.

Liu Yunxi, founder of Xi Xiang, said chefs had helped develop more than 1,000 recipes for the robots. Huang Li, who is a food research and development engineer at Xi Xiang, develops more than 10 dishes a month using seasonal materials.

The COVID-19 outbreak has cast a shadow on the catering industry as people had to stay at home instead of dining out. Huang said while many of his friends in the catering industry are at risk of losing their jobs, he is unaffected and continues to develop new dishes.

The epidemic is both a crisis and an opportunity for Xi Xiang. Liu said that although its catering orders have been affected, it has recently been contacted by catering companies’ interested in the unmanned kitchens.

Xi Xiang is not the only company jumping on the robot bandwagon. Shanghai technology company Hi-dolphin Robotics, the maker of Cofe Plus, a robot coffee bar, has also explored opportunities during the epidemic. Inside a 2.5-square-meter kiosk, a robotic arm is able to brew a cup of hot coffee in 30 seconds.