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.
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”.)
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.
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.
Here’s a list of some of the top pros and cons to see if using a robo-waiter makes sense at your restaurant.
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.