Are the days numbered when it comes to blaming order mix-ups on human error?

It’s surely a thought surfacing of late for restaurants, which is something that’s sped light years during the pandemic. Robotics, in particular, have gone from fantasy to back-of-the-house tool. And it’s only picking up.

Rachel’s Kitchen introduced the Servi robot in its Henderson, Nevada, location last December with the goal of providing an extra pair of hands for front-of-the-house employees.

It’s been increasingly difficult to find staff,” says Debbie Roxarzade, founder and owner of the eight-location fast casual that’s headquartered in Las Vegas. “It’s tough, it’s exhausting, people are getting sick, we’re constantly being thrown things we need to do. So I thought if there’s anything I can do to help the team members, I want to do it.”

Roxarzade leases Servi and pays an annual cost for an initial two to three years—all programming was done by a technician from Bear Robotics, the company that makes Servi.

We were able to try her for a couple of weeks before we committed, but within a week everyone was saying she’s helpful,” Roxarzade adds. The cost of Servi, she says, is reasonable given the labor challenges afoot in the industry. “It’s expensive because she’s a piece of technology but if you break it down, she’s not expensive. She’s helping my team members do more things and not have as much stress.”

Keeping employees happy and not overwhelmed is key. The restaurant industry continues to suffer from an employee shortage, and according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2021 report, 77 percent of quick-serve operations and 74 percent of fast casuals say they don’t have enough staff. At the same time, 78 percent of quick-serve operators and 68 percent of fast-casual chains say they expect technology and automation to help more with that this year.

Servi has settled in nicely and Roxarzade even refers to it as a “she.”

“I think she’s cute,” Roxarzade says. “People say we should put an apron on her.”

Servi has two primary uses: Employees load her up with food and plug in a table number. She then delivers that food and engages in some light chit-chat with customers, along the lines of “Have a nice day.” Servers can also take Servi along when they bus tables, loading her with dirty dishes and sending her back to the dishroom. Customers receive their food faster thanks to Servi, Roxarzade points out, and also gives the servers more time to interact with customers and provide a hospitality touch.

Servi’s a big hit with customers, especially children. “People are taking videos and pictures,” says Roxarzade, adding during COVID there’s another advantage of having a robot—some customers are not yet quite comfortable with human interaction.

Roxarzade is considering rolling Servi out to franchisees, once she’s completed a couple more months of testing.

Adding value with technology

BurgerFi debuted Patty the Robot at the end of 2020 at a location in Jupiter, Florida. Patty has the same responsibilities as Servi: bring food to tables and bussing. As of press time, she was currently in a 90-day trial.

“Patty is not intended to replace folks; it’s an augmentation of our staff and an extra pair of hands,” says Karl Goodhew, chief technology officer for the company, which has 116 domestic stores. “She allows our staff to add value, spending more time explaining our food.”

Currently, staff members punch in a table number to send Patty there with food. However, BurgerFi is working with Rich Tech Robotics, which developed Patty, to add RFID capabilities. This way, the employee simply puts a table topper number containing an RFID chip and Patty will read it and deliver food accurately. A representative from Rich Tech came out to this BurgerFi location initially, to set up Patty, and map out the restaurant to give it an initial awareness of where home and the tables are.

There’s only been one glitch so far. Patty had problems operating in very bright sunlight, of which there’s plenty in Florida. However, Rich Robotics quickly made adjustments.

Customers enjoy the novelty factor of interacting with Patty. When it delivers food, it thanks them for coming to BurgerFi and if people are in its way, it politely asks them to move. “There are different speech texts we can put in there,” Goodhew says. “It’s a little playful and some customers are coming in just to see Patty, especially if they’ve got kids.”

Bringing fun to an operation

Carlos Gazitua is using Servi robots in six of his full-service restaurants in the Sergio’s chain and, like other operators, has been struggling to find staff during the pandemic. The introduction of the robots was so successful he’s now considering implementing them in his two fast-casual restaurants, Sergio’s Cuban.

“We keep the servers rocking out getting the tables and doing the hospitality and it has made a major impact for our guests,” the chief executive says. “It has helped and the servers definitely feel more pride when they serve because they’re creating a better experience for the guest.”

Gazitua leases the robots for about $1,000 per month each. “At first, the servers were a bit nervous because they didn’t understand if it would work, but after two hours they loved it because they don’t have to be running back and forth. They now have more time with the guest and can pick up more tables.” He’s even added a second robot in two of his restaurants, and says one had to assume a more dominant personality so the robots know which goes first in a narrow hallway or between guests.

Gazitua charges the robots overnight and between shifts.

Although Gazitua has been in business for 45 years, his locations are now known as the “robot restaurants” by local children. Due to this appeal, he’s looking to add more phrases to the robots to increase their interaction, which might include singing happy birthday, speaking Spanish, and celebrity voices.

“Being able to add more experiential layers will make it more interesting,” he says. “It’s a way to make your concept fun.”

Customer Experience, Restaurant Operations, Story, Technology, BurgerFi