You can already see it in restaurants: tall machines that greet guests, take them to tables, deliver food and drinks and dirty dishes to the kitchen. Some have cat-like faces and even purrs when they scratch their heads.
But they are robot future bystanders? There is a question about the restaurant industry he tries to answer more and more.
Many people think that robot security guards are the solution to the labor shortage in the industry. Their sales have grown rapidly in recent years, with tens of thousands now gliding through the dining rooms of the world.
“There is 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 the robot in December, and Reynolds says it has eased the workload for human staff and made it more efficient.
But others say that robot servants are not much more than a gimmick that have a long way to go before they can replace humans. They can’t order, and restaurants have many steps, outdoor patios, and other physical challenges that they can’t accommodate.
“Restaurants are pretty chaotic places, so it’s very difficult to incorporate automation in a way that’s really productive,” said Craig Le Clair, a vice president with consulting firm Forrester, which studies automation.
Still, the robots are multiplying. Redwood City, California-based Bear Robotics introduced its robot servant in 2021, and expects to have 10,000 by the end of this year in 44 US states and overseas. Shenzhen, China-based Pudu Robotics, which was founded in 2016, has deployed more than 56,000 robots worldwide.
“Every restaurant chain is looking at automation as much as possible,” said Phil Zheng of Richtech Robotics, an Austin-based manufacturer of robot servers. “You’re going to see these people everywhere in a year or two.”
Li Zhai was working as a staff member at Noodle Topia, a Madison Castle, Michigan, restaurant in the summer of 2021. He purchased BellaBot from Pudu Robotics. Robot has successfully added two; now, one robot leads diners to their seats, the other delivers bowls of steaming noodles to tables. Employees pile dirty dishes onto a third robot to shuttle them to the kitchen.
Now, Zhai only needs three to handle the same volume of work that five or six people used to handle. And to him the money. A robot costs between $15,000, he said, but a person costs $5,000 to $6,000 per month.
Zhai said the server robots give people more time to mingle with customers, which increases tips. And customers often post videos of robots on social media that entice others to visit.
“In addition to saving labor, robots are generating business,” he said.
Interactions with human agents may vary. Betzy Giron Reynosa, who works with BellaBot at The Sushi Factory in West Melbourne, Florida, said the robot is in pain.
“You can’t say it’s moving or anything,” he said. He also had clients who did not want to interact with him.
But overall the robot is more, he said. he saves his trips to the kitchen and spends time with customers.
Labor shortages have accelerated the adoption of robots globally, Le Clair said. In the US, the restaurant industry employed 15 million people at the end of last year, but that’s still 400,000 fewer than before the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association. In a recent survey, 62% of restaurant workers said the association did not have enough workers to meet customer demand.
Pandemic-era concerns about hygiene and the adoption of new technologies like QR code menus have also put robots on the ground, said Karthik Namasivayam, director of the School of Hospitality Business at Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business.
“Once an operator begins to understand and operate one technology, other technologies become less and less accepted as we move forward,” he said.
Namasivayam notes that public acceptance of robot servants is already high in Asia. Pizza Hut has robot waiters in 1,000 restaurants in China, for example.
The US has been slow to adopt robots, but some chains are now testing them. Chicken-fil-A is looking for them in several US locations, and says it has found that robots give human employees more time to prepare drinks, clear tables and greet guests.
Mark Merritt was surprised to see a robot waiter at a chicken-fil-A in Atlanta recently. The robot does not appear to replace the staff, he said; He counted 13 employees in the store, and the workers told him the robot helps the service move a little faster. He is delighted that the robot is having a big day, and expects to see more robots when he goes out to eat.
“I think technology is part of our everyday life now. Everyone has a cell phone, everyone uses some form of computer,” said Merritt, who owns a business. “It’s a natural progression.”
But not all robots have had success.
It introduced a pure robot server named Rita in 2020 and expanded the experiment to 61 US restaurants before suddenly shutting down last August. Chaina found that Rita was moving too slowly and got in the way of the human servants. And 58% of guests surveyed said Rita did not improve their overall experience.
Haidilao, a hot pot chain in China, began using robots a year ago to deliver food to diners’ tables. But activists have said in most cases that robots have not proven to be as reliable or cost-effective as human officers.
Wang Long, the manager of the Beijing issue, said that his two robots were both broken.
“It’s only used occasionally,” Wang said. “It’s a kind of idea that things and machines can never replace people.”
Eventually, Namasivayam expects that a certain percentage of restaurants — perhaps 30% — will have humans serving and having more luxury, while the rest of the robots will lean more heavily in the kitchen and dining rooms. Economics from the side of robots, he said; the cost of human labor will continue but the costs of technology will fall.
But that’s not the future everyone wants to see. Saru Jayaraman, who advocates for higher pay for restaurant workers and president of United Fair Wage, said restaurants could easily solve their shortages if they just paid workers more.
“Humans don’t have the technology to serve a full-service restaurant,” he said. “They go for their own experience and people care about being served by a person.”