Crowd-pleasing robots serve up delectable dishes with a side of fun.

From inventory management to self-service ordering and delivery integrations, automation is a central part of modern restaurant operations. These solutions not only help address industry challenges rife with historical inefficiency, they were absolutely necessary during the pandemic to keep many restaurants afloat.

The lingering labor shortage gives operators even more reasons to automate—not to eliminate jobs, but to strike a balance between a consistent experience for customers and a safe, comfortable and fair-wage atmosphere for workers. The labor shortage is compounded in places like California, where the recently-passed Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act states that by December 31, 2023 the minimum wage for fast food workers could reach as high as $22 per hour.

“The way the law is worded makes it sound like it’s a burden shouldered by big chain restaurants,” says Peter Kim, CTO at Navia Robotics. “But mom and pop operations know they will be hit the hardest—because they now have to offer higher pay or workers will leave for those big chains.”

One California concept is addressing the labor shortage with the consumer-facing technology many U.S. restaurant-goers have been waiting for. At Orange County-based Kaju Soft Tofu, crowd-pleasing robots deliver trays of savory tofu soups, bibimbap, dumplings, bulgogi, and more. Owner Fabio Park says the robots’ main focus is to deliver food from the kitchen and take dirty dishes back to the dishwasher so that staff can maximize their time in the front of the house.

“It’s not about replacing human workers,” Park says. “Robots are there for the customers. Having the robots do mundane tasks like bussing tables  enhances staff timing and decreases food running costs so that servers have more time to engage with customers.”

It also ensures that the dining room stays clean and tables can turn faster, which helps servers make more money. Park says customers generally tip the same amount when a robot delivers their food, as they find it part of the unique experience of the restaurant. In fact, many customers seek out Kaju Soft Tofu because of its robots.

“Kids, adults, seniors, food influencers—everyone loves them,” Park says. “We get a ton of social media coverage because of them. In fact, labor cost savings is a secondary consideration for some operators. They want them in restaurants because it attracts customers.”

The robots come from Navia Robotics, which offers several models of robots ranging from three to four feet tall and between 80–120 pounds. The smaller models can navigate spaces as narrow as 21.5 inches, while the larger models boast room for four bus tubs and up to 132 pounds of dishes.

All of the robots can talk and be programmed with interactive features. For example, they can politely ask people to make way or show animated “facial” expressions. They can light up when they arrive at a table, and sensors can detect when dishes have been removed to prompt the robot to their next task. One of the most popular features is the “birthday mode,” in which the robot offers a dazzling light show and plays birthday music. The robots can also function as hosts, guiding guests to their tables so that their human counterparts can greet walk-ins and answer calls. And Navia’s robots have a special feature that similar companies haven’t yet nailed: the ability to navigate through double-swing doors.

“Robots are the future of restaurants,” Kim says. “A lot of fast casual operators are on a rapid trajectory to implement this technology.”

In addition to making life in the front-of-house more manageable, robots can make the job safer. Particularly in a place like Kaju Soft Tofu or restaurants that serve hot soups like ramen and pho, they reduce the risk of burns that come from running hot plates. It also decreases the likelihood that servers will drop dirty dishes because they are trying to carry too much.

Kim emphasizes that while robots can be used in any kind of restaurant from quick-serves to fine dining, they aren’t for every operation. Restaurants need smooth floors and good lighting, for example, for the technology to work at its optimum level. Navia Robotics offers consultations and no obligation trials to determine whether or not robots would be a good fit for potential customers. Kim says the main pushback he hears about robots is that they might replace human workers, but that is a misconception.

“Our robots’ main function is to bring food from the kitchen and take dirty dishes back so that human workers can maximize time in the dining room,” he says. “Human workers should be able to do what they do best—interface with patrons. No robot can possibly replace the human touch.”

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By Davina van Buren

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