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Do Restaurant Robot Waiters Actually Provide Great Service?

Advantages, Disadvantages, and Societal Acceptance

There has been a lot of talk recently about robots being introduced in a variety of industries, from hospitality to retail. At the Henn-na Hotel in Japan, for example, a robot dinosaur greets you at the front desk. Mario the robot greets guests in 19 languages and monitors the buffet at the Marriott hotel in Belgium.

Foodservice is also experimenting with this technology, with Asia leading the way with mixed results. These robots have an optical sensing system that allows them to navigate a restaurant and can communicate with customers in about 40 different ways. Some restaurant owners tout their benefits, while others have reverted to human staff or had to close their doors due to incompetent robot service. However, as technology advances, robots may become a viable option for foodservice operators.

Robot technology has historically been met with both excitement and apprehension. Numerous science fiction stories warn about the dangers of artificial intelligence, and citizens are concerned about potential job losses. Is it possible for robots to improve foodservice? We’ll look at the benefits and drawbacks of hiring a robot as your next employee.

Advantages

Although they may appear gimmicky now, non-human waiters have advantages. Employers do not have to be concerned about hiring, sick leave, vacation time, or human error. It will provide a consistent branded experience with a distinct customer appeal. Labor costs are also said to be reduced, which is a strong selling point as the minimum wage rises.

In China, robot waiters are reportedly less expensive than a human waiter’s annual salary. Robots can also be used for cooking and food preparation, and will eventually be able to do more, such as washing dirty dishes or delivering food to hungry customers.

According to former McDonald’s USA CEO Ed Rensi, “it’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an inefficient employee making $15 an hour bagging french fries.” Although troubling for those who rely on these jobs, businesses that are struggling to maintain financial stability may overlook these concerns.

With the current labor shortage forcing companies that previously paid minimum wage to offer up to 18 dollars per hour for labor, machine costs may become increasingly appealing to businesses looking to save money in the long run.

Disadvantages

The use of robots has some obvious drawbacks. However, in their current state, the robots used in some Chinese restaurants are less coordinated than humans: they move slowly to avoid collisions and are frequently unable to pour drinks or carry items such as soup steadily. They can also break down and have limited interaction with customers.

Robots with revolutionary communication skills, such as “Pepper,” are able to upsell and interact smoothly with customers. They could, however, be easily replaced by more efficient, nonverbal, digital applications. Robots, too, need time to adjust before they are accepted as mainstream technology. Robot technology raises ethical concerns as well, as job loss and the societal consequences are important issues to consider.

Many teenagers work at minimum wage as their first jobs; what will happen to them during the summer months when they are unable to find work? In a society that values jobs, this may become an issue if robots take on more roles. The current labor shortage in North America has demonstrated that employees are valuable to businesses that rely on them.

Societal Acceptance

Acceptance of new technology by society can be a lengthy process. According to Henrik Scharfe, associate professor at Denmark’s Aalborg University, it will take about 40 years for society to fully accept robot waiters as a foodservice option. If this shift occurs, restaurant employees may become more relationship-focused rather than operational, similar to how bank employees had to adapt to the introduction of ATMs.

A human-like waiter technology may still require improvements, but major advancements in a short period of time are possible, as seen in the development of computers and cellphone technology. Because this technology is more common and already used in many industries, it is also likely that robotized processes will be integrated into mainstream foodservice before long.

Perhaps technology that does not mimic human waiters but does the job in its own unique way will gain traction. Many Japanese sushi restaurants, for example, use conveyor belts to deliver meals to customers. Robot waiters have advantages and disadvantages, and it will take some time for society to accept them. It will be fascinating to see how this innovative technology evolves.

Published January 17th, 2017, updated September 19th, 2022.