Restaurants increasingly turn to robots amid pandemic

Like a scene from a sci-fi movie, two robots walk across the floor of the Itabashi-Maenocho store in the Yakiniku King restaurant chain in Tokyo, delivering orders to tables.

They are pre-programmed to deliver to specific tables at the grilled meat restaurant, which has a capacity of 156 people.

It’s not the first place many would expect to encounter robots, sometimes leaving diners to marvel more at their staff than at the food.

“I was surprised to see a futuristic scene when the robot delivered our orders,” said Naoya Ishibashi, 20, a second-year student who came to the restaurant with his friends.

But it could be about to become much more common in Japan.

Larger restaurants are increasingly relying on robots like these amid the pandemic to supplement their workforces by delivering meals to tables.

Robots are expected to streamline manual tasks performed by human staff and help improve services and productivity.

Many companies are also planning to expand their use amid a labor shortage and a growing need for contactless services.

“With robots taking a partial role in serving food, we can improve our customer service, such as explaining how to grill meat and changing plates,” said manager Hiroya Yamashita.

All staff members need to do is put plates of raw meat on the shelves of a robot, enter the table number on the touchscreen, and press a button to send it off.

It moves at a speed of around 60 centimeters per second but automatically stops when its sensor detects a staff member or customer in its path.

When the robot reaches its destination, it talks to the diners saying things like “Thank you for waiting”. It is also equipped with a weight sensor, so it knows when the plates have been removed and will then automatically return to the kitchen.

Monogatari Corp., the operator of the restaurant chain, has begun introducing Servi from Softbank Robotics Corp. in March of this year. It now has around 360 units in some 290 Yakiniku King and Sushi & Shabu-Shabu Yuzu-An outlets.

“We also intend to increase our productivity in anticipation of future labor shortages,” said Hikaru Minami, a senior company executive.

The operator of family restaurant chain Saizeriya Co. has been using Servi at all three outlets since February. Saizeriya intends to use the delivery robot in all of its restaurants in the future.

Watami Co. has introduced 20 units in its 16 Yakiniku no Watami restaurants, while Skylark Holdings Co. is expected to introduce the Servi in ​​approximately 2,000 outlets of Gusto and other family restaurant chains by the end of 2022.

The Servi is priced at 5.7 million yen ($50,300), excluding taxes.

But it also has several challenges to overcome. For example, it can only be used in restaurants that have hallways wide enough for the robot to move around in and it cannot climb stairs.

Despite these drawbacks, a Softbank Robotics representative said he expects demand to continue to rise as restaurateurs again face labor issues since the pandemic took hold. little attenuated.

Pudu Technology Inc. aims to promote its cat-themed delivery robots, which come in four varieties, one of which is equipped with a screen to suggest menu items.

“Contactless services have become mainstream due to the coronavirus pandemic. Adding more functionality to robots will help them become even more mainstream,” said a representative of the Chinese company.

About Mohammed B. Hale

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