We all loved R2D2 in Star Wars, the cutest little robot we knew at the time, when bots like him were more science fiction than reality. But today bots are spreading in our everyday lives, and they are taking more and more jobs. This is not necessarily a bad thing for now that there is a labor shortage. But what will it mean in the future?
Maybe your restaurant experience has already included one, waist-high machines that can greet guests, lead them to their tables, deliver food and drinks and ferry dirty dishes to the kitchen. Some have cat-like faces and even purr when you scratch their heads.
Are robot waiters the future? It’s a question the restaurant industry is increasingly trying to answer.
Many think robot waiters are the solution to the industry’s labor shortages. Sales of them have been growing rapidly in recent years, with tens of thousands now gliding through dining rooms worldwide.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that this is where the world is going,” said Dennis Reynolds, dean of the Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership at the University of Houston. The school’s restaurant began using a robot in December, and Reynolds says it has eased the workload for human staff and made service more efficient.
Not everyone feels the same way. Others say robot waiters aren’t much more than a gimmick and that they 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 adapt to. At least for now.
“Restaurants are pretty chaotic places, so it’s very hard to insert automation in a way that is really productive,” said Craig Le Clair, a vice president with the consulting company Forrester who studies automation.
Still, the robots are proliferating. Redwood City, California-based Bear Robotics introduced its Servi robot in 2021 and expects to have 10,000 deployed by the end of this year in 44 U.S. states and overseas. Shenzen, China-based Pudu Robotics, which was founded in 2016, has deployed more than 56,000 robots worldwide.
“Every restaurant chain is looking toward as much automation as possible,” said Phil Zheng of Richtech Robotics, an Austin-based maker of robot servers. “People are going to see these everywhere in the next year or two.”
Li Zhai was having trouble finding staff for Noodle Topia, his Madison Heights, Michigan, restaurant, in the summer of 2021, so he bought a BellaBot from Pudu Robotics. The robot was so successful he added two more; now, one robot leads diners to their seats while another delivers bowls of steaming noodles to tables. Employees pile dirty dishes onto a third robot to shuttle back to the kitchen.
Now, Zhai only needs three people to do the same volume of business that five or six people used to handle. And they save him money. A robot costs around $15,000, he said, but a person costs $5,000 to $6,000 per month.
Betzy Giron Reynosa, who works with a BellaBot at The Sushi Factory in West Melbourne, Florida, said the robot can be a pain. “You can’t really tell it to move or anything,” she said. She has also had customers who don’t want to interact with it.
Public acceptance of robot servers is already high in Asia. Pizza Hut has robot servers in 1,000 restaurants in China, for example.
“I think technology is part of our normal everyday now. Everybody has a cell phone, everybody uses some form of computer,” said Merritt, who owns a marketing business. “It’s a natural progression.”
But not all attempts have been successful. Chili’s introduced a robot server named Rita in 2020 and expanded the test to 61 U.S. restaurants before abruptly halting it last August. The chain found that Rita moved too slowly and got in the way of human servers. And 58% of guests surveyed said Rita didn’t improve their overall experience.
But the fact is that economics are on the side of robots; the cost of human labor will continue to rise, but technology costs will fall.
But that’s not a future everyone wants to see. Saru Jayaraman, who advocates for higher pay for restaurant workers as president of One Fair Wage, said “Humans don’t go to a full-service restaurant to be served by technology,…they go for the experience of themselves and the people they care about being served by a human.”
Predictably, reactions from diners ranged from: “This is fun, I love it” to, “If I ever see this in a restaurant, I’m not eating there.”
In the future, you may not have a choice.
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