Study Buddy (Challenger): Are robot waiters going to take over jobs of human servers at restaurants?

You may already have seen them in restaurants: waist-high machines that greet guests, lead them to their tables, deliver food and drinks, and ferry dirty dishes to the kitchen. Some have catlike faces and even purr when you scratch their heads.

But are robot waiters the future? Many think they are the solution to the industry’s labour shortages. Sales of these robots have been growing rapidly in recent years, with tens of thousands now gliding through dining rooms worldwide.

 “There’s no doubt in my mind that this is where the world is going,” said Dennis Reynolds, dean of the Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership at the University of Houston in the US state of Texas. The school’s restaurant began using a robot in December, and Reynolds said it eased the workload for human staff and made service more efficient.

But others say robot waiters aren’t much more than a gimmick with a long way to go before they can replace humans. They cannot take orders, and many restaurants have steps, outdoor patios and other physical challenges that they have yet to adapt to.

Still, robots are proliferating. “Every restaurant chain is looking towards as much automation as possible,” said Phil Zheng of Richtech Robotics, a Texas-based maker of robot servers. “People are going to see these everywhere in the next year or two.”

Li Zhai was having trouble finding staff for Noodle Topia, his restaurant in the city of Madison Heights, in the summer of 2021, so he bought a BellaBot from Pudu Robotics. The robot was so successful that he added two more. Now, one robot leads diners to their seats while another delivers bowls of steaming noodles to tables. Employees pile dirty dishes onto a third robot to shuttle back to the kitchen.

 Now, Zhai only needs three people to do the same volume of business that five or six people used to handle. And they save him money. According to Zhai, a robot costs about US$15,000 (HK$117,746), but a person costs US$5,000 to US$6,000 per month. Zhai said the robots gave human servers more time to mingle with customers, which increased tips. And customers often post videos of the robots on social media that entice others to visit. “Besides saving labour, the robots generate business,” he explained.

Interactions with human servers can vary. Betzy Giron Reynosa, who works with a BellaBot at Sushi Factory in the state of Florida, said the robot could be a pain. “You can’t really tell it to move or anything,” she said. She has also had customers who don’t want to interact with it. But overall, the robot is a plus for her: it saves her trips back and forth to the kitchen and gives her more time with customers.

Pandemic-era concerns about hygiene and the adoption of new technology like QR code menus laid the groundwork for robots, said Karthik Namasivayam, director of The School of Hospitality Business at Michigan State University Broad College of Business. Eventually, Namasivayam expects that a certain percentage of restaurants – maybe 30 per cent – will continue to have human servers and be considered more luxurious, while the rest will lean more heavily on robots in the kitchen and in dining rooms.

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