Blake Dowling: The good, bad and ugly of restaurant robots


In the past, I have put together columns on the use of robots, both in Florida and around the world.

Articles about robots in hospitals cleaning rooms and others that deliver food.

I also wrote about a Japanese hotel with an entire robot staff.

Those were cool stories about technology and innovation in our society. Robots were brought in to make things safer or for a awesome experience.

But the latest surge of robots and automation in restaurants is an entirely different beast.

Organizations are not just looking for better, cooler, or cheaper ways of doing things. They are looking for someone, anyone, to do the actual work that needs to be done due to the labor shortages that we are all dealing with.

We see robots deployed increasingly in our workforce, while their human counterparts are doing their thing and not working in the Great Resignation.

The plus side of robots is obvious. They are more dependable than their human counterparts; they don’t stay out after a football game until the bars close, show up late, or call in sick. They don’t get stuck in traffic or take work time to take care of their kids.

The robots have one function, work.

John Horne with the Anna Maria Oyster Bar in Bradenton brags about his robot server, Pearl, in this segment below. You can check out a clip from FOX13/Tampa of Pearl in action.

Nor are there any tips to disperse, benefits to pay, or smoke breaks to manage.

The downsides are also obvious. There are no personal relationships developed, no chance to over-serve the client, and a bare minimum degree of customer service delivered.

Humans are also put out of a job — do you really want a robot representing your brand?

Down in Orlando, there is a restaurant called the U & Me Hotpot that relies on a robot host to seat their guests. Then, a conveyor belt takes over and delivers your food. During the peak of the pandemic, they also deployed robot servers to join the robot hosts.

Checking the reviews from Trip Advisor, people seem to enjoy this use of technology. So far so good.

While it takes the place of actual human jobs, it supplies restaurateurs’ staff. Plus, like the hotel in Japan with no human staff, there is also a “gimmick” that might drive people to their doors versus their competitors.

A Tallahassee restaurant, Peris Indian Grill, also has three robots on staff, with the price tag on them from Pudu Robotics of approximately $45,000. These robots have a cat face to make them less robotic. (There goes my concern about robots being non personable, as kids especially love cat bots.)

They are for sale in Miami (manufactured in China).

If you want to check them out: Smart Delivery Robot-Pudu Robotics.

What drew the owner of the restaurant to the robots were some of the reasons mentioned above — human employees quit or did not show up for work and he was tired of having to do those jobs himself.

Robots are a lot of things; reliability is one of them.

Pudu offers several models — and they are not the only game in town.

Earth Robotics (also in Miami) is making a go at delivery robots. A robot takes the package from the lobby of a building right to your high-rise door, eliminating a lot of steps in the process.

Also, if you think that the robots are only rolled out to replace wait staff, you would be mistaken.

White Castle invested with a company called Miso Robotics which has a robot named Flippy. If you guessed that Flippy makes burgers, you would be right on the money. Flippy 2 is the latest version and this creation; it makes burgers, gets fries done, and lowers the labor needs of each location that deploys one.

The 2022 rollout plan is to have 100 White Castle locations with this technology.

Surely there is a Harold and Kumar joke here, but we are skipping that for today.

Using robots in the hospitality industry may be a wake-up call to our workforce, as jobs might not be there when people are ready to get back to work. It certainly is a possibility.

But the other side of the coin is that a robot restaurant sounds pretty stale. Doesn’t it?

Businesses are doing their best to avoid that perception by giving robots various personal touches. Not just a cat face, but how about a birthday mode that will do just what you think it will do, sing a song to the customer on their birthday? Sound awful? Wonderful?

The jury of public opinion is still out, but the writing is on the wall. Looking back at the internet, flat-screen TVs, or cellphones, the minute a price point meets functionality at a place comfortable for the marketplace, so begins the rush.

Once that begins, they will be everywhere. And, as I see it, it’s just a matter of time.


Blake Dowling is CEO of Aegis Business Technologies, and you can reach him at [email protected].

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