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Coming to a Restaurant Near You: Robotic Help

During a labor shortage, robotic help is more likely to become a reality.
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Flippy, Sippy, and Chippy are the newest cooks in town, and they just happen to be robots. Faced with human labor shortages during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, many restaurants are turning to machines to pick up the slack. According to a recent study in Science Robotics, food prep and serving-related jobs were more likely to be replaced by AI-powered robots compared to jobs in other sectors like education or healthcare. Robots like Flippy can cook burgers and fries, Sippy can dispense drinks, and Chippy’s tortilla chip cooking and seasoning skills are currently being tested by Chipotle.

Benefits to Robots in the Kitchen

Restaurant staff can benefit from robots taking on many tasks that can be automated, allowing humans to interact and serve their customers on a more personal level. Few people enjoy being splattered with hot oil, but specially designed fry cook robots don’t mind. Robots can also be programmed to do a task correctly, ensuring foods are consistently cooked properly which then reduces the risk of food-borne illnesses due to human error.

Robots can also support front of house staff. Food service startup Bear Robotics’ Servi robot can run food, deliver drinks, and transport filled bussing tubs. Servi is already saving servers time in restaurants, bars, airports, and more, and at a monthly fee of $999 it works out to a running cost of around $2.75 an hour.

Challenges of Robots in Restaurants

Although robots can take over many repetitive and automated tasks like shuttling food and cooking french fries, AI is not advanced enough to take people out of the equation. For example, a restaurant customer needing a drink refill still needs to request it from a human server, but then a robot can deliver it to their table and save the server a trip. Robots also cannot yet understand the intricacies of human emotion or social interaction.

Of course, robots can also break, run out of battery charge, need software upgrades, and other challenges related to technology. Some companies like Bear Robotics offer a subscription service that includes maintenance and updates, but robots purchased in full may need specialized repair service that is hard to find, leaving them broken and unused for extended periods of time. Robots’ programmed predictability means they may not be able to adapt to unplanned circumstances, for example maneuvering around a spill on the floor or handling custom requests.

The Future of Robots in Restaurants

Customers are embracing many automated trends in hospitality, such as mobile and kiosk ordering and contactless payment. But receiving food delivered by a robot is still a novelty. Whiile consumers will sacrifice some level of service in order to receive a unique experience, they still expect to have their needs met, which often can only be properly done by a human.

However, robots can help fill the thousands of open jobs in restaurants. The National Restaurant Association reports that 65% of operators do not have enough employees to support customer demand, and 81% have job openings that are difficult to fill. As robots are evolving enough to successfully do mundane and potentially dangerous jobs like frying foods and delivering food, they can relieve some of the human staff’s burden, leaving them to focus on delivering an excellent experience to their customers.

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