You can’t run a restaurant without labor. And with labor shortages continuing industry-wide, operators are increasingly looking to technology solutions to help fix that problem. One of the more creative, front-facing options now trending is the robotic waiter, or robo-waiter, most common in the casual, full-service space.
These fully automated machines run food and bus dishware, and are sometimes even capable of acting as host and leading people to their table. They’ve been revered for easing the stress of short-staffed teams and reducing some of the monotonous tasks that burden existing servers.
“I don’t think staff believed [the robotic waiter] was going to work, but now they feel like it’s an assistant that they can call on to help with the hard functions of the job – like your own personal forklift at The Home Depot, only it’s carrying plates,” says Carlos Gazitua, CEO of Sergio’s Franchise Group and Restaurant, who started leasing Bear Robotics’ robotic waiter, Servi, last summer.
Since adopting Servi, Gazitua says his staff have more time to engage with customers. This creates the obvious potential to earn higher tips, but also to pick up more tables. Gazitua now has at least one Servi in every one of his 13 restaurants.
Robo-waiters have been around for years, and as the technology advances, other operators are increasingly jumping on board. But the solution isn’t necessarily right for everyone.
To get a better look at how this technology works, we took a look at the ins and outs of Bear Robotics’ Servi as a starting point. This is intended to provide insight into what a robo-waiter could look like in your own restaurant, but of course, every prototype has its own nuances in functionality. Consider this as a baseline for your research.
Looks like: Far less like a humanoid and far more like a rolling, multi-level shelf; includes two (16-inch) trays and a bus tub
Color: Black and white
Size: 41- inches tall x 17-inches wide; 75 pounds
Able to carry: 66 pounds; up to 7 entrees
Hours of operation: 8 to 12 hours of battery life; takes 4 to 5 hours to fully recharge, with a quick-charge feature allowing 4 to 6 hours of operation after a 1 to 2 hour charge
Average operating speed: A brisk walking pace of 0.6 to 0.8 meters per second
Max speed:A very, very fast walking pace of 1.2 meters per second
Charging type: Wall charger (Input 100~240V AC 3.5A 50/60 Hz, Output 28.6V DC, 8.0A)
Operating in: Over 6,000 restaurants in 38 states in the U.S. and several countries worldwide, including South Korea and Japan
Price: About $30 per day with a three-year contract – roughly $1,000 a month (subject to vary)
How a Servi robotic waiter operates
We’ll walk you through the operation of a single Servi, but customers can lease up to two robots per restaurant. To start, Bear Robotics ships out the robot and sends a field operations team to deploy it.
Deployment begins with a simple click of an “on” button. Then, the Bear Robotics’ team drives the robot around the restaurant. “It’s just like you’d push a lawnmower, and during that time period, it’s mapping the four walls and the entire environment,” says Juan Higueros, co-founder and COO of Bear Robotics,
Once a general map is established, the team works with the restaurant owner to decide on designated delivery points for the robot, often based on table numbers. This is where the robot gets programmed to deliver food and bus tables. The robot’s given a starting point near the kitchen, too, and programmed to slow down around corners and on ramps. These details are all uploaded to Bear Robotics’ cloud platform.
“The map becomes fixed in the robot’s memory, with software built on top that trains the robot on what to do and where to go, and allows the robot to navigate to and from destinations,” says Higueros. “Now you throw in people and moving objects, and there’s LiDAR and cameras to detect that.”
Each robot has a front-facing, downward-facing, and upward-facing camera, plus laser sensor technology called LiDAR that provides the robot with a vision of what’s ahead. Software triggers the robots on how to act according to what’s detected.
If two robots are in the room, they’ll communicate when crossing paths and pause or redirect to get to their end destination. When a robot meets a person, “it can actually say ‘excuse me’, and go around you,” says Higueros. The robots are programmed to say a few other verbal phrases, too, like “please take your food” and “enjoy”, customizable in different languages. (Servi can also belt out a robotic-sounding “Happy Birthday”.)
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How staff interact with the robot
One task not in a robo-waiter’s tool belt is taking orders. And that’s potentially a good thing. Robots, at least in their current capacity, can’t hold conversations. They can’t charm customers. And they can’t cleverly upsell menu items in the way a human can.
So with a Servi, servers must take each order and place it into the restaurant’s POS system. (That is, unless customers are self-ordering through a QR code.) Then, when an order’s ready to go, the server, or an expediter, loads the food onto Servi’s trays. Using a built-in screen on the Servi, the server or expediter clicks on the appropriate table number or other designated delivery point and hits “go”.
The robot will roll straight to the table and customers retrieve their food. (The robot cues customers by voicing “please take your food”.) Or, robots can be programmed to take food to designated stations where servers retrieve the food and do the final drop. Each robot has a weight sensor, so when all food is retrieved, it knows to automatically return to its starting point.
Switch the robot into “bus mode” and replace its top tray with a bus tub, and Servi becomes a busser. Servers load dishes onto the robot and then direct it to the kitchen. Through Bear Robotics’ app, staff can also use an external tablet to call the robot to designated points when a robot’s needed.
If a Servi’s not getting used, operators will know it. KPIs, including stats like distances traveled and number of trips made, are reported daily to allow operators to track ROI and encourage staff to take advantage of its assistance.
Installation and training process
The installation for a Servi is typically a brief, two-day process. In the hours before a restaurant opens, Bear Robotics’ deployment team arrives to do the necessary mapping of the restaurant and program the Servi accordingly. The team then stays for the following two service shifts to walk restaurant staff through using the Servi. At this time, any tweaks that need to be added to the workflow are made.
The operator gets assigned to a dedicated deployment person who can be called if any future changes are made to the restaurant layout. Changes are generally made offsite through the deployment person’s laptop and can often be activated within minutes after a robot reboot.
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Is a robotic waiter right for you? Pros and cons
Here’s a list of some of the top pros and cons to see if using a robo-waiter makes sense at your restaurant.
Robots don’t get tired (increased efficiency): Robotic waiters can carry more than human servers, and their muscles don’t fatigue. They can also free up staff to take on more tables and engage with customers, with the goal of increasing customer satisfaction.
Potential to decrease staff burnout: It’s no secret that serving is a taxing job. But with robots taking on some of the heavy lifting, staff can often work a full shift without feeling like they’ve run a marathon. Staff are also given more time to interact with customers (versus lifting heavy trays and running dirty dishes), typically considered a more meaningful aspect of the job.
Affordability: Looking at nationwide wage increases, Servi could be considered a bargain. In California, minimum wage could soon reach $18 an hour. And numerous restaurants across the country are already hitting that number, as the fight to attract talent continues. Servi breaks down to $3.75 an hour, if used for daily, eight-hour shifts. If used for its full 12-hour battery life, that price comes down to $2.50 an hour.
Novelty can attract business: People are drawn to new trends. Flash your robot in marketing campaigns, and you just might attract new customers through your doors. Often this creates a circular effect, too, where customers post restaurant robot videos on social media, creating free marketing.
Doesn’t currently operate outdoors: With weather and other outdoor logistics, Bear Robotics currently only leases its robots for indoor operation.
Only affordable if frequently used: Servi breaks down to $3.75 an hour – only if it’s getting put to use every single day for at least eight hours. That might be easy if you’re a large restaurant, where regular bussing and running assistance is always needed. (Chili’s, Denny’s, and Rita’s are all Bear Robotics’ customers, for example.) Butif you're running a smaller operation, you’ll want to estimate usage and run the numbers.
Not every restaurant layout works: Robo-servers don’t have legs. They can’t jump, hop, or navigate steps and steep inclines. If you’ve got such a divider between your kitchen and dining room, this may not be the solution for you.
Customer and staff hesitancy to new technology: If you’ve got a team that’s resistant to technology, it’ll be crucial to put in the legwork needed to change their mindset. Again, robotic waiters need to be frequently used to pay off. You’ll also want to assess your customer base. If a nonstop flow of human interaction is a core of your brand, customers might not welcome the change.
Not ideal for fine dining: Bear Robotics will tell you themselves: fine dining isn’t their target market. “Fine dining requires the extensive attention of staff,” says Higueros. While robots can still assist with tasks like bussing dishes, fine-dining operations often aren’t large enough to benefit from the solution either.
Robotic waiters aren’t a new phenomenon. And they’re already commonplace in many countries across Asia. Higueros expects them to be commonplace here in the U.S., too, within the next five to seven years.
Naturally robot-waiters lack some of the skills a great server encompasses. Yet, not all front-of-house roles at every restaurant rely on conversational skills and a human touch. If you’re in the casual, full-service space and struggling to find staff, it could be a useful option to test out. Likely it’ll become an even more affordable one, too, in the years ahead, as new competitors enter the space and existing companies grow.
Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.