As restaurants across the country start to reopen, one question we’ve been asking is, assuming people will even want to go back into restaurants, how will they want to be served? Will customers want their server to wear a mask or not wear a mask? Which is less off-putting?
Another third option that may become increasingly common is having a robot server in your restaurant. Autonomous robots can shuttle food and empty dishes to and from the kitchen, they don’t get fevers and they’ll never cough anywhere near you or your food.
One company making such robots is China’s Keenon Robotics, which launched its first server robots back in 2016. Keenon’s robots use both 3D mapping and specially coded stickers mounted on ceilings to navigate. A camera pointing up on the robot sees the sticker and determines its route. The robots also feature obstacle detection and automated stopping so they don’t bump into people. Robots can be leased for $1,500 – $1,600 a month.
Other players in the space include Bear Robotics and PuduTech, but what sets Keenon apart is scale. Of the 9,000 robots Keenon has operational around the world, 6,000 are already in the hotel and restaurant industry. Simi Wang, the Director of Global Sales at Keenon Robotics, told me by phone this week that the company can produce 30,000 robots this year.
The question now is, will that be too many robots… or too little?
Keenon certainly seems to be filling its pipeline. The company has partnerships with Burger King in China, the Haidilao hot pot restaurant chain, and recently entered into an agreement with Chinese delivery service Meituan Dianping to create a new contactless restaurant.
Will there be that same demand for server robots here in the U.S.? When I spoke with Bear Robotics’ CEO last month, he said that there was definitely more inbound interest in his robots. He attributed this increased interest to customers wanting more transparency into who has touched their food. But again, we’re at the very beginning stages of restaurants coming back online, so we don’t know how much people will actually care.
Pre-COVID, the labor crunch was a big factor for restaurants considering a robotic workforce. Casual and quick service restaurants in particular had huge churn rates. With so many people out of work, and so many fewer restaurants still operational, the economics of human labor won’t be as much of an issue. The question now will just be how much people trust other people to handle their food.