Much of the recent news about robotics in restaurants has focused on the kitchen, as experts strive to engineer the perfect robotic pizza maker or robotic frying station attendant. While the jury is still out on whether these devices can demonstrate the ingenuity that humans have at making food taste good, they seem more accessible to many restaurant operators than service robots. However, the launch of these gadgets is often marked with headlines like “Attack on Pizza Making Robots” and “Robots Are Here”, as if we were facing an alien invasion!
If you are presented by a bot in front of a restaurant, it may be surprising at first. For customers and employees alike, the presence of these robotic workers can set off alarm bells. Customers may worry that a lack of human interaction will ruin their experience or lead to unnecessary errors. For employees, robots may raise fears of being replaced.
The ultimate helping hand, robots are uniquely positioned to support restaurants during the current wave of labor shortages and food cost inflation—that is, if they are served and used properly.
dilution, not replacement
To ensure that bots become an ally of service personnel, it is important to set expectations about what robotic co-workers can and cannot do. They are best used to manually perform physical, repetitive and tiring tasks, thus relieving employees of these duties. For example, they can carry several hot pots out of the kitchen and bring them to guests, avoiding painful and costly spills along the way. They can help servers clean the entire dining room in one quick trip. They can even wash floors before, after and during a shift.
All of these routine tasks, when handed over to a bot, free the in-house staff to do the more important tasks that require interaction with guests, such as recommending the right dish, having a memorable conversation or fulfilling a more specific request. Servers have more time to interact with guests, check in at their tables, and generally ensure an exceptional dining experience when accompanied by a robot. The key word is accompanied. Make sure employees know the bot is there to support them, not replace them.
Not only will the bots work in tandem with the servers, but over time this cooperation will also result in the servers on duty getting a higher percentage of tips – the bots don’t need to pay. By catering, cleaning, and serving, robots are ensuring that workers are less stressed and less physically taxing while being paid the same, or perhaps more, than before.
Robots could be a marketing tactic for many restaurants, as some diners will be looking for this new dining experience. However, for more select customers who expect traditional service, robots can seem like the end of the golden age of dining. It will be important for bots to follow established rules for restaurant service and enhance the experience without taking anything away, including familiarity.
Bots must avoid hitting guests. This may seem obvious but from a technical point of view, it is actually one of the hardest parts of introducing bots. Advanced artificial intelligence is required in order to realize smart delivery in restaurant scenarios. Positioning technology must be effective for navigating dining rooms with multiple aisles and dozens of guests. New robot positioning technology based on vision and mapping allows some restaurant robots to find their way without markings, making them much easier to deploy, especially in environments with high ceilings. Being able to adapt in all scenarios, such as recognizing elderly guests, children, and slowing down, is critical to ensuring that customers feel comfortable around bots.
Advanced positioning technology not only reduces the risk of collisions, but also increases the probability that the robots will bring the right food to the right table. Few things annoy a guest more than waiting for food only to be on the wrong plate, or for it to spill while exiting the kitchen. Bots can build trust with guests by consistently performing as planned.
Robots come in all shapes and sizes with a unique variety of abilities. For restaurants, it is as important for robots to be aesthetically pleasing as it is for a carefully designed dining room. The Terminator-like robot likely won’t comfort the guests. But something cute and stylishly designed will make guests feel comfortable and entertained. Taking this a step further, advanced bots can also engage customers, greet them with greetings, tell jokes, and provide voice comments or emojis. While they will never replace a human in terms of participation, robots can seem more intuitive with these little touches.
To ensure an exceptional experience for both employees and customers, robots must always be accompanied by a human from their first meeting until the end of the meal. Employees will feel empowered to do what they do best, humanizing each customer’s experience, while avoiding the more difficult aspects of the business. Meanwhile, customers will enjoy interacting with relaxed servers who have time to discuss the menu and go above and beyond to provide five-star service, no matter where they dine.
Robin Zheng is the American CEO of Co Bodo robotsa technology-focused enterprise dedicated to the design, research and development, production and sales of commercial service robots, which aims to use robots to improve the efficiency of human production and living.
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