Boichik Bagels customers already know owner Emily Winston is all about bagels. But what they may not know is that she’s also all about robots. Before Winston became a darling of the West Coast bagel world, she earned her mechanical engineering degree at Cornell University, and her first job after college was at General Motors. Now, she’s bringing both fields together with the creation of what she’s calling BakerBot, a production line and robot that will help produce bagels at her upcoming Berkeley bagel plant. “To me, the product quality is the important thing,” Winston says. “And if machines just make it easier to get there and don’t degrade the quality, I’m all for it.”
BakerBot is set to be the centerpiece of the Boichik Bagels plant, showcased behind a huge window — “front and center,” Winston says. The robot is the result of a year’s collaboration with Livermore-based company, BakTek, which specializes in bakery equipment manufacturing, including, yes, bagel lines. Winston’s BakerBot is on display this week at the International Baking Industry Exposition in Las Vegas, where already it’s turning heads.
If you’re wondering how a robot and automation will change things at Boichik, you may be surprised by this bit of news: If you weren’t already aware, to a certain extent, you have already had a production line-produced Boichik bagel, made via a machine Winston calls “Bagel Robot 1.0” that’s already in use at the shop. It’s a “retail sized” bagel line, Winston explains; her bakers cut chunks of dough and feed it into the machine’s hopper, which then portions out and rolls the dough into a bagel at a speed of one bagel per second. A second baker then pulls the bagels off the line and places them onto a board — I Love Lucy chocolate factory-style, Winston says — before adding it to a baking rack.
With BakerBot, Winston’s new $500,000 machine, the process is much more involved. At the start, a large mixer bowl holding 100 pounds of dough will be hoisted seven feet in the air, before dropping the dough into a large hopper that will portion, cut, and roll the dough into bagels. From there a pattern maker will place the bagels on a cornmeal-dusted board, laid out in a pattern best for baking, and then spit the board out. A robot arm will grab the full tray of dough and move it onto the rack. The maximum speed is 12,000 bagels an hour — or “way faster than someone can catch them,” Winston says. If this sounds like something on par with grocery store-level bagel production lines, it is somewhat, but Winston says BakTek is tailoring her bagel robots to a “medium artisanal-grade bagel setup” befitting her business. To be clear though, Winston says the baking part of the process will remain the same, without automation.
Already, Winston has begun to field questions about why she wants to go an automated and robotic route with her bagels. Although many bakers prefer to roll out their dough by hand, Winston knows this road is paved with injury. Before she opened her shop and was still operating as a pop-up, Winston says she very quickly started having carpal tunnel issues due to rolling out a large volume of bagels. Beyond the physical issues, having a team roll out bagels can also result in inconsistent bagels; plus, bagel-making is a specific skill set that’s tough to find, Winston adds. And this doesn’t mean the new Boichik bagel plant won’t have human-based jobs. Conservatively she guesses the new space will employ 30 people, but may perhaps balloon up to 50 positions.
The new Boichik Bagels plant is set to open in February 2023 with BakerBot at its center, and Winston is excited, saying the line and the robotics will be really cool to watch. “It’s one of the myths that New York has perpetuated that hand rolling makes the bagel better, but the H&H bagel was never hand rolled, and mine hasn’t been either,” Winston says. “We’ve been using our Bagel Robot 1.0 since we opened so it makes a great bagel.”