If Serve Robotics CEO Ali Kashani has his way, more restaurants in the near-term future will offload the last mile of their deliveries not to human couriers but to wheeled rover bots that can autonomously traverse the streets en route to hand over your food.
Serve started life as a part of Postmates, eventually spinning out into its own company when the latter was bought by Uber. The wheeled Serve bots are all-electric, autonomous sidewalk rovers that require minimal human supervision to deliver burritos, sandwiches, and other food items to customers. They’re also, according to Kashani, way better for the planet and the restaurant industry.
Ahead of our upcoming upcoming Restaurant Tech Summit on August 17 (that’s tomorrow!), we caught up briefly with Kashani to get his thoughts on how robots help the restaurant biz and what role they’ll play in the future. Read our full Q&A with her below, and if you haven’t already, grab a ticket to the virtual show here.
This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity.
The Spoon: What problem does Serve Robotics solve for restaurants/the restaurant industry?
Ali Kashani: Moving a two-pound burrito in a two-ton car doesn’t make a lot of sense. Yet it’s what we do 10 to 20 million times a day in the United States alone. It’s resulting in carbon emissions, traffic congestion, and accidents. Beyond that, it’s also expensive. Restaurants are paying 20-30% of their revenue to fulfill their customers’ delivery demands.
Serve Robotics is creating a fleet of all-electric, autonomous sidewalk robots that require minimal human supervision. They don’t cause congested roads or emit CO2. They also don’t cause safety risks — it takes 3,000 sidewalk robots to have the same kinetic energy of a single street car. And finally, they make delivery affordable for restaurants and local businesses by significantly reducing the underlying costs. This is a win-win-win, for restaurants, for customers, and for cities.
Starting with sidewalks, autonomous deliveries will reduce the cost burden that’s carried by restaurants today, while enabling more customers to shop locally — whether it’s from a nearby restaurant, a convenience store, or a local mall. And cities win too. If we take 5% of restaurant deliveries off the road in five years, which is our goal, we’d be removing 80,000 vehicles off the roads in the U.S., which translates to over 1 billion fewer miles traveled by cars.
By the way, robotic delivery will also be better for employment, as it helps local SMBs, the backbone of our economy, be better positioned to sell to local customers and compete effectively against larger e-commerce players.
What is the biggest change in terms of the restaurant industry’s approach towards technology as a result of the pandemic?
Some impact was very visible to everyone, such as the adoption of digital menus almost overnight. Some other changes were uniquely visible to us. For example, robotic delivery as a whole was validated as a necessary tool, a part of city infrastructure, rather than a science project. Before the pandemic passersby would often wonder what a delivery robot was doing, but after the pandemic, everyone immediately recognized what they were seeing was a contactless delivery.
The impact of the pandemic has continued. Driver shortages have increased the importance of having several available delivery modes, creating significant inbound interest for us.
3. Where will we see the most deployments of delivery bots in the near-term future (e.g., major cities, campuses, etc.)?
We know from having access to food delivery data on major platforms that over half of all restaurant deliveries can be addressed on the sidewalk. Closed environments like campuses are a great place too. We decided to focus on cities instead because on campus basket sizes are smaller, so it’s a lower-margin space, and the demand is more peaky and seasonal. So all and all, the steady higher-value demand of cities made them a more interesting market.
Granted, cities are a harder problem to solve. We had to invest significantly in developing the right vehicle capable of navigating city sidewalks. But that’s a worthwhile investment that serves as a competitive barrier. With years and millions of dollars invested, we now have the most suitable robot for sidewalk delivery, with the largest cargo capacity, longest mileage range and battery life, and most capable drivetrain for handling the roughness of city sidewalks.
4. What are you most excited about when it comes to the impact of restaurant technology?
We’re excited by the experiences restaurants can potentially offer customers when delivery robots become a part of everyday life. There’s so much waste in how we deliver today — not just the car emissions mentioned earlier, but also in the packaging. Delivery is also not yet on-par with the experience of dining at the restaurant.
Now imagine if the cost of last mile logistics was so low, that restaurants could send food in fine china and silverware. Similar to room service at a hotel, the robot would wait to return the dishes at the end of the meal. We could create new experiences that are similar or even better than dining in a restaurant, and do so at less cost and with less waste.
5. What do you think the restaurant industry will look like in five years?
Our goal is to take at least 5% of restaurant deliveries off the road, and bring down the cost of delivery overall. The impact this can have on our cities is enormous. From congestion and emissions, to the increase in customer adoption of local delivery, to the increase in employment and commerce opportunities.
Think about the kind of impact Ford had when they introduced the first car. Our cities look different today because of it. This would take longer than five years, but new forms of mobility offered by Serve and other companies in this space have similar potential to reshape our cities into more liveable and green places.