Penny, the food running and clearing robot, in action.

Are you ready for even more robots in your daily life? Yes? Good—because they might soon be whirring along through your favorite local pizza joint, delivering your pepperoni pie, clearing up the scraps, and bringing you the check.

Silicon Valley-based startup Bear Robotics has created robots to bus tables and deliver food in restaurants. Their AI-driven robots—which vaguely resemble hip-height bowling pins with a flat disc on top—use self-driving technology to navigate through restaurants, avoiding people and other obstacles. 

When food is ready to run, managers simply use a tablet with Bear Robotics’ connected app to call a robot (dubbed “Penny”) to come pick it up and whisk it off to hungry customers. When they’re finished eating, Penny will return, ready to deliver dirty dishes to the kitchen before bringing the bill. 

If you’re thinking that this sounds very Silicon Valley-esque, you’re not wrong. In fact, Bear Robotics co-founder and CEO John Ha spent six years as an engineer at Google before turning his sights on the hospitality industry. He invested in a Korean restaurant, which is where he started to realize how inefficient and difficult foodservice could be.

“[Servers] are tired, they get a low salary, usually no health insurance, but they’re working really hard,” Ha told The Spoon. His company wanted to streamline the point of sale and increase efficiency in front of house operations. So they decided to build a runner robot who could deliver food quickly and clear dishes. 

Hence, Penny was born. Well, made.

The company currently has one robot deployed at Ha’s restaurant Kang Nam Tofu House in Milpitas, CA. When it was first introduced in August 2017, engineers had to be on call to make sure that the robot was running food smoothly. Since December, however, Ha says that the robot has been deployed every day, unsupervised by engineers. It now works seven days a week.

The robots are controlled by an app which Ha claims is very user-friendly. Restaurant owners or managers can simply mark key locations (Table 1, kitchen, etc.) and the robot will learn the layout by moving around the space, drawing a map as it goes. When food is ready in the kitchen managers use the app to call a Penny, who then runs the dishes to their matching customers. 

Penny doesn’t have arms, though, so either servers or the customers themselves still have to transfer the food from the robot to the table. This means that the robots don’t necessarily save a lot of time, though Ha claims that that time adds up. By not spending time waiting in the kitchen for food to be ready or running back and forth to the kitchen with dishes, servers are able to stay in the dining room and chat with diners.

Ha is in the process of selling his flagship restaurant to focus on expanding Bear Robotic’s robot food-running empire. The company plans on renting out Pennys using a labor as a service business model to local chains for an hourly or monthly fee. So far, local pizza chain Amici’s Pizza has signed on to add food running robots to their staff once a week. Ha is also in the process of opening a Japanese ramen place which will “employ” three robots to serve and clear dishes. 

So how do customers feel about having their entrées delivered by a robot that sort of resembles a slimmer R2D2? According to Ha, most of them are all for it. “People love to interact with the robot,” he said. “They especially love paying the bill when the robot brings it to them.” 

In the future, BearRobotics is hoping to expand Penny’s functions beyond simply running food back and forth. Ha envisions a future when the AI system can integrate more fully with POS, possibly even taking orders directly with customers without the guidance of an app.

Unlike other companies who are applying AI to food production with burger-flipping and salad-mixing robots, BearRobotics is focused solely on the front of house operations. “By focusing on the front of house we [can] have a better impact on the industry and reach a bigger market with a simple, versatile product,” said Ha.

In other words, not every restaurant needs a robot with a specialized preparation skill like crepe-making, but most of them do need someone (or something) to run food and bus tables. That means that Bear Robotics’ Penny robots could function in virtually any type of restaurant, regardless of layout or type of cuisine.

I was surprised to learn that Ha doesn’t envision his robots (or their future iterations) completely replacing human servers. Instead, his goal is for their robots to help bulk up staff during busy times and decrease labor intensity on employees. He hopes that Penny can shoulder the physically draining parts of service, like dish clearing and delivering heavy plates, so waiters can focus on the more fulfilling aspects of their job, such as chatting with customers.

Integrating robots into the staff can also help human servers make more money—at least in theory. If a robot is covering food running and bussing, restaurant managers can schedule fewer servers per shift. That means that servers don’t have to tip out their bussers and runners at the end of the day. However, if a robot is delivering customers’ food, they might not feel the need to tip as much as they would with a human server—no matter how good of a job it does. 

Despite Ha’s assurances otherwise, I can’t help thinking that Penny (and other restaurant robots) still bring us one step closer towards an automated restaurant experience. We’re already seeing automated restaurant experiences in fast-casual joints like Eatsa and coffee shops like CafeX, but Bear Robotics is hoping to incorporate robots into nearly every type of eating establishment.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: front of house automation could well lead to more efficient ordering and food delivery, so you’ll never have to deal with cold fries again. But it is worth noting that Penny does cut out two full-time restaurant jobs which are pretty commonplace at high-volume and fancy establishments: bussers and runners. No matter how much it frees up servers to spend more time asking about your day, it still probably means fewer hospitality jobs for humans. 

The effectiveness of server robots will most likely depend on the type of restaurant experience. At a low-key pizza place I most likely don’t need any help ordering (anchovies, of course), but for a more fine dining experience I appreciate a more, well, human touch. Servers guiding me through the menu, explaining specials, and recommending dishes in an engaging manner is part of what makes forking out for a big meal worth it.  

Ha told us that he wanted to create a company that was “the Google of the restaurant field,” and in a way I think he’ll succeed. I could envision a future where Pennys are pretty ubiquitous, especially as their self-driving technology inevitably improves. Plus, if Ha’s predictions are true, Bear Robotics will expand their robots’ operations until they could effectively run the entire front of house by themselves. So if you weren’t already mentally prepared for robots to enter every aspect of your life—even your pizza parlor—now’s the time.