For the past couple of years, robots were the shiny new object for restaurants. They could automate cooking, serving and delivering food, and even wash the dishes when all was said and done. But last year’s robots were still first generation tech and more of a novelty as the restaurant industry figured out the cultural and economic costs and benefits of automation.
Then COVID-19 came along and the world turned upside down. Restaurants that haven’t shut down permanently are looking to see what socially distant changes will be mandated in order for them to reopen. With their inability to get sick, robots could move from a novelty in restaurants to a necessity.
To see if there’s been a increase in robot interest from the restaurant industry, I checked in with John Ha, Founder and CEO of Bear Robotics. Bear is the company behind Penny, the autonomous front of house robot that can bring food to tables and carry empty plates back to be cleaned.
“Interest is going up a lot,” Ha said about incoming inquiries of his robot. “Before COVID, [restaurant] operators loved our robots, but employees were fifty-fifty, and customers didn’t really care. Now the changes that I see are on the customer side.”
The changes he’s talking about are what concerns customers now have. Before they didn’t care about the robot because they were most interested in the food. But in a pandemic world, customers now want to know who has touched their food and the cleanliness of those hands.
“People come back for the food before, now people are going to pick the restaurant they can trust,” Ha said. “People want less contact in the restaurant.”
Robots are a way of providing one less point of human contact. Kitchen staff can load up the robot tray and the robot then drives itself to its table destination to bring people their order. But then it actually gets a little complicated. When it comes to moving the food off the robot and onto the table, as Ha explained. “Should we allow customers to pick up the food? There’s danger involved with that as well.” It’s not hard to imagine, for example, a customer dropping a bowl of scalding soup as they lifted it off the robot.
“But would you want the servers to touch the food?” Ha continued. “They can’t wash their hands every minute, and even if they could, how do you know?”
One thing Ha does know is that the next version of Penny will be easier to clean. “The next version much easier to clean and food contact safe,” said Ha, “From the materials to design.”
Sterilization is going to play an increasingly important role in food robotics, and could become one of its biggest selling points. It’s much easier to wipe down a robot than it is to constantly monitor all your employees for any sign of illness.
Then there is the question of what do restaurant customers want to interact with? Restaurants in California will reportedly need to have servers wear gloves and masks. Which is less threatening to a customer, a masked human or a robot?
I don’t know. We’re all figuring this out in real time, and robots may not be the answer for every restaurant. “Adopting a robot is an intrusive change for the restaurant,” Ha said. “They have to redefine the workflow for expediters, servers, bussers.”
Despite all that, in a world wary of human contact, robotics could solve at least part of the meal journey puzzle. As Ha noted “Now it’s something everyone will consider.”