Restaurants keep trying to use robots, with mixed results

People in the Phoenix metro area are all atwitter because THE ROBOTS HAVE ARRIVED. The Phoenix New Times published a story highlighting several restaurants in the Phoenix area that are using robots as servers. The New Times explains the growth in restaurants around the world using robots as servers:

Anyone who owns a restaurant, works at a restaurant, or has eaten at a restaurant in the past couple of years knows that the industry has a major labor shortage.

Now, robots with tiers of trays that deliver food and drinks are starting to fill the gap. The cute, talking, rolling automated servers assist with marketing as well, in mass media, social media, and even old-fashioned word-of-mouth.

The robots in the Phoenix area have been a real hit, mostly because they are novel. Customers are coming into restaurants just to experience the robots:

The robots have become rock stars on social media. Sim Kaur of Buckeye says she drove all the way to Chandler to meet Shiela after seeing it on TikTok. Kristina Sky of Phoenix says she initially spied Kur-B at Kura Sushi on TikTok as well, and after seeing it for the first time in person, says it was "the coolest frickin' thing ever."

Many customers love interacting with the robots: 

Kura Sushi's robots, named "Kur-B" speak, play sing-song music and deliver water and soft drinks. They are a talking point for customers, some of whom come specifically to see them, according to Chandler manager Christy Nguyen.

"They video the robots. They take pictures with the robots. They talk to them, saying, 'thank you,' saying 'hi,'" she says. "And the children that come in with their parents, they get very excited over the robots."

Other customers enjoy the fact that the robots don't talk to them, so they don't have to carry on small talk (I'm an introvert, and this is totally relatable to me):

A couple of Gen-Z customers admitted that not having to interact with another human was a plus. They dislike having to flag down servers, wait for them, and have them hover over them interrupting their meal. The robots deliver quickly and don't stand around trying to chit-chat.

However, while the robots might be new and exciting to the Phoenix area, in some parts of the world, they have already grown old. IEEE Spectrum published an article in 2016 highlighting how two restaurants in Guangzhou, China, that had become famous for using robot servers, ended up closing. IEEE Spectrum explains:

As far as I can tell, all of these waiter robots can do essentially one thing: travel along a set path while holding food. They can probably stop at specific tables, and maybe turn or sense when something has been taken from them, but that seems to be about it. "Their skills are somewhat limited," a robot restaurant employee told Workers' Daily. "They can't take orders or pour hot water for customers." Those are just two of the many, many more skills that human servers have, because it's necessary to have many, many more skills than this to be a good server.

And a more recent Business Insider article, from 2021, describes some problems with robot servers that the restaurant "Robotazia," in Milton Keynes, UK is having. The restaurant has four robot servers that bring food to tables and interact with customers, and draw customers to the restaurant. But the owners of the restaurant reveal some of the 'notable drawbacks' they've experienced with the robots:

  • The robots turn around and roll away from guests wearing lots of metal jewelry, which has something to do with signals being reflected off the metal.
  • They chat too much. Amy has an interactive function that allows her to respond to customers' questions. "We turned that off because you would never get a delivery done as she would stay there having conversations," Gittens said.
  • They give up work when they're hungry. When the robots need to recharge, they make a quick exit.
  • They can't perform some basic tasks. The robots can deliver food on trays but they can't clear tables. They also can't check if a person is old enough to buy alcohol.
  • Further, they can't clean themselves or change their batteries. Gittens and Swannell employ four humans, one for each robot, to keep them in working order.

The bottom line, say Gittens and Swannell, is that the robots actually cost more to employ than human servers, "This is partly down to maintenance. Swannell said he fixes or tweaks parts on the robots every Tuesday." And the final issue with the robots is that, simply, "They're not human," and people ultimately want to interact with humans, once the novelty of the robot wears off.

It will be interesting to see how long the robot craze lasts. I definitely understand the excitement of seeing a robot delivering food, and fell under the spell once. At the beginning of the pandemic my favorite taco shop bought a bunch of robots to deliver food to houses near the restaurant. I live about half a mile away, so I was in the delivery zone. I ordered tacos and sodas and went outside to the sidewalk in front of my house to watch for the robot. It was all very exciting! I took photos and videos and wowed all my friends on social media who didn't yet have robot food delivery in their areas. After this initial excitement, though, I never used the robot service again. It was expensive and slow, and pretty much unnecessary. And the restaurant abandoned the idea after a few months anyway.