The Rise Of Restaurant Robots Amidst Pandemic Measures

The Rise Of Restaurant Robots Amidst Pandemic Measures

In a restaurant landscape where lean profit margins are getting even slimmer due to the necessary COVID-19 safety measures of distancing, staying afloat is an increasingly difficult challenge. Small wonder, then, that some operators are using whatever means they can to stand out from their competition. Robot waiters, although not a new phenomenon, are making headlines around the world again, but this time with a socially distanced twist.

At Claypot Rice, a Chinese restaurant in Calgary, robot greeters and servers chat with guests, take orders and run food from the kitchen. These are typically three distinct roles performed by humans, a fact not lost on owner Alex Guo. “Right now I focus on the kitchen,” Guo told CTV News. “I don’t have time to figure out how to use it (the robot) but even in the future I’m thinking that the robot can’t replace the people.”

In the UK, a Milton Keynes based restaurant called Robotazia features upcycled robots made from vacuum cleaners, cement mixers and other detritus in a sci-fi themed space. “We did a small exhibit and we had a small cafe and a robot waitress,” co-owner Mark Swannell told The Associated Press. “And from there, the interest there was so great that we thought: well this, we’ve got something going here, let’s expand on this, on the dining experience.” The restaurant has 10 human servers in addition to four robot ones.

Milton Keynes is also home to a fleet of grocery delivery robots, one of whom recently made headlines for an unfortunate detour into a local canal, requiring rescue. “If people see a robot not moving, they shouldn’t do anything because we’re aware of where every single robot is to the nearest inch and it may just be having a rest,” parent company Starship Technologies told The BBC. “However if on the rare occasion someone sees a robot swimming or in any other odd situation then feel free to email community@starship.xyz with the details.” According to Starship Technologies’ website, the 100 lb autonomous self-driving robots can carry deliveries within a four mile range at a “pedestrian speed” (food thieves are foiled by a locking mechanism only opened at departure and arrival). The robots, available in the UK for several years now, are rolling out across the US as well, in Virginia, DC, California and Arizona.

Robots are already a facet of many aspects of foodservice, from manufacturing and other elements of the supply chain to back of house cooking elements, such as Flippy, the White Castle robot set to debut this year, which uses AI to detect burger doneness. (Regular readers of this column may recall an article on robots in retail grocery stores, stocking shelves, performing cleanups in aisle 4 and in some cases, deeply unnerving shoppers).

The pandemic and its resulting distancing measures, not to mention the effect on the perceptions of the consumer in terms of dining safety, could move robots from behind the scenes into more customer facing roles. Some research, however, is already indicating that while consumers may be comfortable with robots at the quick service level, fine dining is an area where humanity will still hold sway. “The term ‘human touch’ kept coming up over and over and over again,” Dina Marie Zemke, associate professor of residential property management at Ball State in Muncie, and lead author of the study “How to Build a Better Robot for Quick-Service Restaurants,” told Restaurant Business. “People said, ‘I like to know that a person is handling my food. I like to know that human effort and the human touch is involved.’”

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