TAMPA — First, it was the Roombas. They seemed harmless enough. Then, a Madeira Beach couple started selling GPS-enabled “Mowbots” to cut people’s lawns. Pretty reasonable, given lawn upkeep in Florida. Now, there’s robotic furniture designed to maximize space in tiny apartments, autonomous shuttles zooming down our streets and even robotic arms assisting with surgery at local hospitals.
Robots are suddenly everywhere in Tampa Bay. So when I heard of a local restaurant where a robot server was waiting on diners, I wasn’t surprised. And I had to see it for myself.
I am not the biggest fan of automated technology replacing human interactions. I hate self-checkout aisles at the grocery store, and iPad menus at airports make me sad — I enjoy talking to people and, also, I am sometimes lazy.
But there’s no debating that current staffing shortages have put restaurants in a real bind. Could robots be the answer? John Zhao, whose South Tampa Vietnamese restaurant, Pho 813, is the first local eatery to utilize robot technology, certainly thinks so.
I first met the robot (which the staff calls “Peanut” or “Little Robot”) on a rainy Tuesday evening. It was shortly before 6 p.m. and the restaurant was mostly empty. I was dining solo, and a host sat me at a four-top in the middle of the room. I glanced at the robot, which was standing to the left of me, next to the bar. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it: It looked like a tricked-out white step ladder with four rungs and a computer screen on top.
At first, the robot wasn’t doing much. As customers trickled in, a collection of servers brought out menus and took orders. The robot didn’t budge.
I was confused. Did I come on the wrong day? Was it Little Robot’s day off?
But as the dining room got busier, the robot got moving.
Zhao, who also runs the chain of Yummy House restaurants across the state, told me that the idea for the robot came from a restaurateur friend of his in Toronto, Ontario, who had started using robot servers and recommended them for their expediency and efficiency.
The robots are produced by Chinese manufacturer Keenon Robotics, a Shanghai-based artificial intelligence company that makes commercial service robots for the real estate, healthcare and hospitality industries. The company recently announced $200 million in funding, one of the largest investments in Chinese customer service robotics technology to date.
The company’s website describes machines that utilize laser radar and intelligent mapping to maximize efficiency in restaurant service. There’s also a line on the robot’s ability to “show the human-like emotions such as happy, angry, sorry etc., making communication more interesting.” But for the most part, the company touts the devices’ spatial awareness, like the ability to not run over people while carrying multiple trays of hot food.
For Zhao, who owns multiple restaurants in the Tampa Bay area as well as eateries in Gainesville, Ocala, Orlando and Sarasota, it felt like a worthwhile experiment. Staffing issues continue to plague his industry, and finding enough employees to work is an ongoing struggle.
Zhao tested the robot at his newest spot, Pho 813. The experiment wasn’t cheap: With shipping from China, the purchase set him back $15,000.
Zhao’s model is called the Delivery Robot T6, part of the Keenon Robotics “Peanut” family. Among its selling points is a “multi-point food delivery mode” where dishes for up to four tables can be delivered at one time. The machine is paired with sensors on the ceiling tiles. To send the robot over to table five, for example, servers push in the number matching with the ceiling tile and the machine whirls over to the corresponding spot.
The company manufactures different models, some which are outfitted like cartoon peanuts dressed as bellhops with smiley faces. But the faceless model — arguably better for carrying dishes and utensils — seems to be the restaurant industry standard.
The robot acts more like a self-wheeling bar cart than anything resembling service staff. On the night I visited, it seemed chopsticks, plates and napkins were Little Robot’s main concern.
Not everyone clicked with the robot right away. When it swung by a table carrying a tray of spring rolls and a bowl of pho, the two women waiting for their order looked around, confused. With no arms or any real dexterity to speak of, the robot (at least this one) can’t actually serve anyone — guests have to take their dishes off the trays. One of the women hesitantly reached over to get her meal, while her companion looked uncomfortable and didn’t budge. A young man working at the restaurant finally sprinted over to hand-deliver the dish to the woman, who seemed relieved.
Not everyone gets a visit from Little Robot, either. I ordered a spring roll appetizer and later a bowl of lemongrass grilled tofu bun, and both times they were delivered by the same (human) server. This was lovely, of course. But I couldn’t figure out why some people in the dining room got served by the robot while others didn’t.
Throughout our conversation, Zhao emphasized that the primary goal of the robot was efficiency — not replacing human labor. The exception is the back waiter position, whose job Zhao said is essentially the same as the robot’s: delivering water, dishes and additional utensils. Zhao estimated that not having to hire a back waiter saves him roughly $3,000 per month, which after five months would cover the cost of the machine plus the transport from China.
As the evening wore on, the dining room continued to fill up. Now, Little Robot was getting busy. Stacked with dishes and silverware, it zoomed through the aisles from table to table, always coming to a full stop whenever a customer (or, in most cases, a running child) happened to dart in its path.
Finally, as I was getting ready to leave, Little Robot paid me a visit. After I asked a server for the tab, the machine zipped over with a black check presenter balancing on one of its rungs.
But before I could grab the checkbook, a server bolted over and placed it in front of me. Little Robot gurgled some beeps and rolled away. Was this a more efficient way of getting me out the door? Doubtful, but the interaction was entertaining, at least.
Zhao said the robot has been a success, and that he’s already purchased several more models for his other restaurants. He sees the technology as a useful tool, helping his current staff with their workload, rather than eliminating the need for them. While the robot brings waters and drops off dishes and utensils, servers can focus on the personal needs of customers.
“The staff really likes it because it’s really helping them out,” Zhao said. “I have no doubt about this thing. By the end of the year most of my restaurants will use this.”
My verdict? I can see the novelty of the robot as a fun gimmick (the kids in the restaurant that night seemed to love it), and perhaps as a tool that can alleviate some of the pressure of running a busy restaurant. Beyond that, I can’t get on board with the idea of robots replacing human interactions, which for me are some of the most integral and enjoyable parts of the dining experience.
As I got up to leave the restaurant, the server waiting on me smiled and told me to have a good night. Little Robot zipped by me, without so much as a second glance. Call me crazy, but I just like humans more.