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Innovation

Robots are servicing short-staffed restaurants. But what happens to the human waiters?

To ease job scarcity and pushback on employee demands against low wages and long hours, restaurant owners are turning to a robotic solution.
Written by Jada Jones, Associate Editor
Robot kitchen
imaginima/Getty Images

Situated in one of Atlanta's wealthiest neighborhoods, Wing Factory in Buckhead serves up a slew of feel-good fried foods. When hungry guests stop by, they know they can order wings that are spicy, extra crispy, and, of course -- lemon-peppery. 

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Inside the restaurant is a tribute to Atlanta's sports teams. Sportscasts celebrating big wins and mourning devastating losses are broadcast on mounted TVs. Georgia Bulldogs and Atlanta Braves, Falcons, and Hawks memorabilia hang on walls. Old-timey Coca-Cola artwork fills the spaces in between. 

But an unexpected object stands in the corner of the restaurant: A robot. And it's not just there for show. This robot works at Wing Factory, serving food, clearing dirty dishes, and greeting customers.

Over the last three years, Wing Factory's owner Michael Giovine had challenges finding reliable employees. He says people will take a job and then stop showing up or quit shortly after. Something needed to change, but Giovine didn't have a solution, until he discovered robot servers. And he's not alone: Amid labor shortages, restaurants across the US are now employing robots alongside human waiters. 

Robots wanted: 'Now hiring'

A regular customer who works in the robotics industry told Glovine about a robotics company that manufactures food-serving robots, piquing his interest. Although he first pictured Wing Factory having a back-of-house robot that could work the fryers, he was excited about the idea of a robot server, too. With his business feeling the burn of extensive labor shortages, Giovine took a chance. 

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"I feel like initially, when I was talking to the robotics guy years ago, I thought it would be cool to have a robot just to have, but post-COVID and since I've got it, it is definitely helping our labor issue," he says. "100%."

Giovine's experience with high employee turnover isn't unique. Across the country, quit rates in the food and beverage industry are higher than in any other industry, according to the US Chamber of Commerce.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, high unemployment rates slammed the food and beverage industry. Three years later, the industry is still having a particularly hard time recovering its labor force.

It's no different at Wing Factory.

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"Instead of having three or four lunch servers, we have one or maybe two. The robot is running about 90% of our food at lunch," he says.

A picture of a service robot

Wing Factory's R2WING2 robot is ready for service. 

Jada Jones/ZDNET

In the US, large chain restaurants like Chipotle, Wendy's, and Sweetgreen employ robotic servers and cooks to cook burgers, fry tortilla chips, and deliver food to customers. Robotics and automation may be expected in large companies, but robots are in independent mom-and-pop restaurants around the country, too.

From Philadelphia and Detroit to Indianapolis and San Diego, the food and beverage industry is weaving robots into the fabric of the American dining experience. But at what cost?

Monetarily, robots aren't cheap, and can cost restaurant owners tens of thousands of dollars each. From installation and shipping fees to monthly service charges, restaurant owners have to bet on the unknown and hope that a robot is the right choice. 

However, Giovine is sure that his restaurant's robot server has been nothing but a profitable business move. He is in a leasing plan for the robot and pays about $800 per month. When the robot works five or six hours a day for five or six days a week, Giovine says that equates to about $4 per day for the robot, a much cheaper wage than any employee is willing to work for. 

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On top of saving on wages, typical employee expenses, like social security and worker's compensation, are irrelevant for a robot waiter. If an employee calls out of their shift, Giovine says he can rely on the robot to pick up the slack.

"It's never going to call out sick, or go on break, smoke, or stay on its cell phone," he said with a chuckle. 

Shortly after the robot began working at Wing Factory, the restaurant held a raffle where customers could name the robot, and the winner received a Wing Factory gift card. The winning name? R2WING2.

R2WING2 is a service robot designed for carrying items, particularly food and beverages, but it also transports dirty dishes from tables back to the kitchen. The robot has two shelves for plates and a third bottom one for dirty dishes. 

During its shift, R2WING2 stands behind the host counter to deliver to-go food or in the kitchen expo window when transporting food to awaiting diners. Servers input a customer's order into the POS machine, and then the order travels to the kitchen. When the food is plated and ready to eat, an employee loads it onto R2WING2, presses a button corresponding to the table number, and off it goes. 

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R2WING2 fluidly glides over to the designated table. Once it arrives, it slightly rotates so the shelves are facing the end of the table. Then, a feminine, robotic voice will politely ask customers to take their food. The shelves' weight sensors communicate to the robot when a customer removes their food. After, R2WING2 returns to its post. 

Upon its retreat back to the kitchen, customers will notice a laminated sign on its rear: "Hi! My name is R2WING2."

'Wah gwaan?': Swapping reggae for heavy metal

A photo of Tastee Spoon's service robot

Robot Irie Milly stands ready to serve for restaurant Tastee Spoon.

Jada Jones/ZDNET

On the other side of Atlanta Interstate 285, about seven miles from Wing Factory, is Caribbean fusion restaurant Tastee Spoon. It's a lively space decorated with colorful paintings and visual odes to Jamaican musical icon Bob Marley. The smell of oxtails, jerk chicken, and Jamaican beef patties permeates the air. 

Tastee Spoon's owner, Raymone Williams, previously operated her restaurant from a stall in Atlanta's Perimeter Mall food court and moved into a standalone store at the beginning of 2020. Unbeknownst to her, the pandemic would bring her to a crossroads just a few months after her grand opening. 

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Williams had a base of loyal customers, but they were cautious about dining in her restaurant at the height of COVID-19. To keep her business afloat and keep her staff and patrons safe, Williams turned to a service robot that delivered food to her customers free of human contact.

Now that the risk of infection is much lower, Williams says that her restaurant's service robot's purpose is to assist her employees when they're busy. 

"[The robot] was not an item to replace anyone; it was an item to enhance the worker's experience at Tastee Spoon," she says. "Now, they don't have to run to every table that comes in right away."

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Tastee Spoon's service robot is named Irie Milly, a tribute to Williams' mother. Irie Milly parades around the restaurant clad in green, black, and yellow -- colors of the Jamaican flag. The robot lowly plays "One Love / People Get Ready" by Bob Marley when weaving through the restaurant. When it approaches a table, it courteously asks, "Wah gwaan?" -- a "what's up?" greeting in Jamaican Patois.

Irie Milly greets customers and brings them menus and water while they wait for their human server. Then, the server comes, takes their order, and relays it to the kitchen. After that, Irie Milly transports the food to the table, but a server will still take plates off the robot and place them on the table. 

Timothy Tanksley, marketing director at Richtech Robotics, explained how robots like Irie Milly maneuver around their workplaces. Irie Milly's manufacturer is Matradee, which is Richtech's play on the French word "maître d'," or a person who oversees a restaurant's waitstaff.

Matradee robots use LiDAR technology, AI, and 3D cameras to communicate with reflective stickers on a restaurant's ceiling that act as a map for the robot to follow.

"First, we place all of those labels up in the environment. Then we bring the robot around the environment, and the robot scans those labels and creates its own virtual environment," Tanksley says. "From there, we can add in table destinations, boundary lines, and things like that. It's just an infrared camera that's reading the pattern of the dots."

Cache-ing checks for a new kind of employee

While the reason restaurants purchase service robots in the first place may differ, the outcome is the same: Both Williams and Giovine say their robots take a load off the human employees, which in theory, means the robots are serving their intended purpose.

But theory only goes so far. The reality is that restaurants are losing employees due to low wages, according to Anthony Advincula, director of communications of Restaurants Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), a nonprofit that fights for higher wages for restaurant employees who are not in a union or who are excluded from US labor laws. The center's mission includes improving working conditions via workplace organizing, local policy work, and workforce development.

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Advincula says that if restaurant owners increased their employees' wages, they wouldn't have to resort to robots to fill vacant positions. He references the 14 US states that pay tipped restaurant workers the minimum wage of $2.13, a figure from a US law that hasn't changed since 1996. Georgia is among those states.

"The employers would rather hire or buy a robot, which is very expensive, rather than increase the [employees'] wages," he says. "It is less of a labor shortage and more of a wage shortage."

Advincula isn't sure how well robots in the service industry will fare, as he doesn't know if customers will fully accept robot servers over human servers. 

Bear Robotics manufactures R2WING2, and CEO Juan Higueros agrees that robots cannot replace human workers. He intends for his company's robots to only make workers' jobs easier.

"I don't think robots, in general, can be a replacement in this particular field because the interaction between human beings is so critical," Higueros says. "But what we're trying to do is get more time for people to interact instead of doing these tasks, which are the repetitive, mundane things that folks prefer to hand off to a robot."

Last year, American casual dining chain Chili's ceased using robot servers after receiving negative feedback from customers. A survey of 2,000 Americans from economics publication Pymnts found that only 33% of men and 17% of women were interested in dining in restaurants with robot servers.

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"Restaurants would rather hire a robot because they don't want to afford job protection in a safe and dignified environment. Whatever you do, wherever you work, you need a break," Advincula says. "Robots are their solution rather than helping their employees. When you hire someone, you're supposed to empower your employees. But that's not the case, usually."

The robot coworker is not a new concept

Humans and robots have been coworkers for decades, dating to 1961 when Joseph Engleberger and George Devol's robotic arm Unimate worked alongside General Motors assembly line workers. 

The Unimate transported die casts from the assembly line and welded them onto the outer shell of the vehicles. The welding process was hazardous for humans, and if done incorrectly, human workers risked losing limbs and inhaling toxic fumes. 

Militaries and law enforcement use robots like Andros F5, Drdo Daksh, and MarkV-A1 to complete potentially deadly tasks like de-escalating hostage situations, defusing bombs, clearing mines, and handling and destroying hazardous materials.

Although serving food and busing tables is undeniably less risky than handling explosives or controlling molten metal in car factories, rugged combatant robots and friendly restaurant robots share a core purpose: to adopt the unsavory parts of a human's job. 

Paul Milloy, a consultant for automated customer service provider Intradiem, says the idea is to use technology to improve human working conditions by eliminating tedious, mundane, and sometimes dangerous tasks.

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"This creative destruction, which has always accompanied periods of rapid technological advancement, presents many opportunities, including higher pay," Milloy adds. 

Can robot coworkers be friends? 

Military, factory, and restaurant robots have something else in common: None are built to resemble living beings -- and for a good reason. Lionel Robert, professor of information at the University of Michigan, says that human brains are hardwired to attribute personhood to moving objects, thanks to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. 

There have been popular examples of attributing personhood to robots. A viral TikTok video of a robot delivery driver crashing into a fire hydrant sparked feelings of embarrassment, sadness, and pity from humans. The "Can't Help Myself" art installation at New York City's The Guggenheim museum featured a robotic arm solely designed to clean up blood-like fluid around it. Though the artwork was meant to portray struggles tied to immigration, authoritarianism, and sovereignty, spectators felt sympathy and shame watching it try to complete a task it could never achieve.

Robert says that these feelings can be an obstacle for humans. They may feel less inclined to use a robot to its fullest potential for fear of its fatigue or exploitation. He adds that when humans give their robot coworkers a name or lend them a uniform, they feel a collective sense of identity with them instead of perceiving them for their intended purpose -- tireless workers.

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"A lot of the time, people will design a robot [so that] when it's low on energy, it might behave differently or it might slow down. Then you'll see people begin to feel bad for the robot," he says. "The more it's designed to behave more human, then they begin to question if the robot is doing too much work."

Moreover, studies conducted on militaries that use robots to dispose of bombs show that soldiers are less likely to send robots into dangerous situations if they feel attached to them.

The possibility of forming an attachment to a robot coworker is why we won't see robotic servers that resemble humans anytime soon. Service robot manufacturers have to find the sweet spot in a robot's design to avoid appealing to the wrong parts of the human brain.

Service robot manufacturers must make the robot look inanimate enough to avoid the "uncanny valley" phenomenon that can scare human coworkers, and to discourage humans from bonding with the machine. This is why most service robots maintain a robotic voice cadence and only have a screen for a face. That's as far as it can go.

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"It's important that when companies design these robots, they make them as unhuman-like as possible," Robert says. "The reason why we design technology that encourages humanization is because, according to research, people enjoy interacting with it more. But then on the flip side, the more they become attached to it, the more problems you can have."

Not to mention, robot servers with a humanoid design aren't possible, as the technology isn't quite there yet. Robots like Irie Milly and R2WING2 still require high levels of human involvement to operate optimally. The robots can't empathize with or relate to customers, grip plates, or verify a customer's ID. 

Verdict: Humans are still needed

Giovine and Williams say they never intended for their robots to replace their employees and that no employees were let go after adding in the robot support. They say they recognize that human employees are an indispensable asset to the restaurant industry. 

Service robots' sole job is to overtake tasks that hinder human employees from doing what they do best: connecting with other humans. Milloy believes that the interpersonal connections made in the workplace are unsurpassable and irreplaceable.

"Only humans -- capable of empathy, flexibility, and emotional intelligence -- can manage the nuanced interpretations that are nearly always required to generate the best outcome," Milloy says. "That's why people will always be essential to customer service delivery. We can certainly benefit from automation, but we'll never be replaced by it."

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