Are robot waiters the future? Some restaurants think so

You’ve probably seen them in restaurants: waist-high machines that greet guests, guide them to their tables, serve food and drinks and carry dirty dishes to the kitchen. Some have cat-like faces and even purr when you scratch their head.

But are robot waiters the future? The restaurant industry is increasingly trying to answer that question.

Many see robot waiters as the solution to the industry’s labor shortage. Their sales have been growing rapidly in recent years, and tens of thousands of people around the world now walk through restaurants.

“There’s no question in my mind that this is where the world is going,” said Dennis Reynolds, dean of the University of Houston’s Hilton Worldwide School of Hotel Management. The school’s cafeteria began using robots in December, which Reynolds said has reduced staff workload and improved service efficiency.

But others say robot waiters are little more than a gimmick and have a long way to go before they can replace humans. They can’t take orders, and many restaurants have steps, outdoor patios, and other physical challenges they can’t handle.

“Restaurants are pretty messy places, so it’s hard to plug in automation in a really efficient way,” said Craig Leclerc, a vice president at Forrester, a consulting firm that studies automation.

Still, bots are proliferating. Redwood City, Calif.-based Bear Robotics launched its Servi robots in 2021 and expects to have 10,000 of them deployed in 44 U.S. states and overseas by the end of the year. Shenzhen, China-based Pudu Robotics was founded in 2016 and has deployed more than 56,000 robots globally.

“Every restaurant chain is looking to automate as much as possible,” says Phil Zheng of Austin-based robotic server maker Richtech Robotics. “People are going to see these everywhere in the next year or two.”

In the summer of 2021, Zhai couldn’t find employees at Noodle Topia, a restaurant in Madison Heights, Michigan, so he bought a BellaBot from Pudu Robotics. The robots were so successful that he added two more; one robot now guides diners to their seats while the other delivers a steaming bowl of noodles to the table. Employees stack dirty dishes on a third robot, which shuttles back to the kitchen.

Now, Mr. Zhai only needs three people to complete the business volume handled by five or six people before. They save him money. A robot costs about $15,000, but a human costs $5,000 to $6,000 a month, he said.

Robots allow human waiters more time to mingle with customers, leading to higher tips, Zhai said. Customers often post videos of the robot on social media to entice others to visit.

“In addition to saving labor, robots can bring business,” he said.

Interaction with human servers may vary. Robots can be painful, says Betzy Giron Reynosa, who works with BellaBot at a sushi factory in West Melbourne, Florida.

“You can’t really tell it to move or anything,” she said. She also has clients she doesn’t want to interact with.

But overall, robots are an advantage, she said. This saves her a trip back and forth to the kitchen and gives her more time to deal with customers.

Leclerc said labor shortages have accelerated the adoption of robots around the world. The U.S. restaurant industry employed 15 million people at the end of last year, still 400,000 fewer than before the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association. In a recent survey, 62 percent of restaurant operators told the association that they don’t have enough staff to keep up with customer demand.

Pandemic-era hygiene concerns and the adoption of new technologies like QR code menus also set the stage for robots, said Karthik Namasivayam, director of hospitality operations at Michigan State University’s Broad School of Business.

“Once operators start to understand and use one technology, other technologies will become less intimidating and more acceptable as we go forward,” he said.

Namasivayam noted that the acceptance of robot servers by the Asian public is already high. For example, Pizza Hut has robot waiters in 1,000 restaurants in China.

The US has been slower to adopt robots, but some chains are now testing them. Chick-fil-A is trialling them at multiple locations across the U.S. and says it has found the robots give human workers more time to refresh drinks, clear tables and greet guests.

Marcus Merritt was surprised to see a robot waiter at a Chick-fil-A in Atlanta recently. Robots don’t appear to be replacing workers, he said; he counted 13 employees in the store, and workers told him robots could help speed up service. He’s glad the robot told him to wish him a good day, and hopes he sees more of them when he goes out to eat.

“I think technology is now part of our everyday lives. Everyone has a cell phone, everyone uses some form of computer,” said Merritt, who owns a marketing business. “It’s a natural progression.”

But not all chains have had success with robots.

Chili’s launched a robot server called Rita in 2020 and expanded the test to 61 U.S. restaurants before abruptly stopping it last August. The chain found that Rita was moving too slowly, blocking the human server. 58% of guests surveyed said Rita did not improve their overall experience.

Haidilao, a Chinese hotpot chain, started using robots to deliver food to diners’ tables a year ago. But managers at several stores said the robots have not been as reliable or cost-effective as human attendants.

Wang Long, the manager of an outlet in Beijing, said that both of his robots were broken.

“We only use them occasionally,” Wang said. “It’s the notion that machines can never replace humans.”

Ultimately, Namasivayam expects a certain percentage of restaurants (perhaps 30%) will continue to have human waiters and be considered more luxurious, while the rest will rely more on robots in the kitchen and dining room. The economics are on the side of the robots, he said; human costs will continue to rise, but technology costs will fall.

But this is not the future everyone wants to see. Saru Jayaraman, chairman of One Fair Wage, advocates for higher wages for restaurant workers, saying restaurants can easily address labor shortages simply by paying their workers more.

“Humans don’t go to a full-service restaurant to be served by technology,” she said. “They’re after experiences for themselves and those they care about.”

—Dean Durbin, Associated Press

Catering Technology

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