We spend a lot of time looking at and fretting over how robots are poised to take over more restaurant work, but at the restaurant Junkichi Robata Izakaya, the robots are more likely to take over your conversation.
Located in the Capitol Hill district in Seattle, Junkichi sets itself apart from other local izakaya restaurants by offering a small, cute, tabletop robot, called SOTA, to go with your katsu bowl. The robot doesn’t cook your meal or bus your table. It sits there, occasionally waving its arms, and through an accompanying phone app, Sota will say what you tell it to.
Junkichi is owned by Plenty USA, which operates four Japanese restaurants in the U.S.. Junkichi is the first restaurant the company has launched that isn’t an existing licensed Japanese property. It’s Plenty’s first brand, and while “Robata” refers to the style of Japanese cuisine, robots do play an interesting role in Plenty’s business.
Izakaya style meals are meant to be an informal gathering of friends, and at Junkichi, SOTA is meant to enhance that. “They are a good way to get your group engaged,” Junkichi manager Edward Wintermyer told us. “Instead of everyone at the table scrolling through Facebook, they can all connect to the robot.”
Once a customer downloads the Junkichi app, they can connect with their table’s SOTA. Once connected, diners can have SOTA speak pre-set phrases, or send a text message that SOTA will then speak. Servers can also use SOTA to deliver messages to the table, and if you register your app through Facebook or Google, SOTA will even use facial recognition to remember you the next time you come in.
That’s about the extent of what SOTA can do, however. It won’t take your order, there’s too much concern about underage drinking and fraud. Junkichi, which opened last month, has two SOTA robots that are rotated throughout the restaurant. There is also a SOTA host at Junkichi’s sister restaurant, Hokkaido Ramen Santouka, also in Seattle.
The robots are made by Vstone, and Plenty is the exclusive distributor of SOTA robots in the U.S.. It’s unlikely that Plenty is looking to open robot shops domestically, but rather as a point of differentiation for it’s restaurants, or to sell to other restaurants looking to set themselves apart as well.
SOTA is really more of a novelty at this point, a fun thing to have at the table (especially if you have kids in need of distracting). And while it won’t take any restaurant jobs any time soon, if you’re ever in Capitol Hill, you can take a moment to “talk” with SOTA.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that NTT created the SOTA robot.