Are robot servers dead?
A conversation with OttoMate's Chris Albrecht
I don’t write a ton about robots in restaurants. The technology shows plenty of promise; companies that build the bots have big ideas and a grand vision of what the future might hold. But their actual distribution has been limited and most restaurants say they’re still trialing the new tech.
My read on the situation: exciting but still impractical.
Then late last month, the top exec at Chili’s parent Brinker said the restaurant was pausing its front-of-house robotics program. It was in partnership with California-based Bear Robotics, in use in 60 locations. The bots even have a name, Rita. (As in marga-.)
“We’re going to stop some of those projects that we just didn’t have a line of sight to a return on the business, but we’re going to double down and accelerate the ones that we think will have a more meaningful impact on restaurant margins and a quicker impact on our business,” Brinker CEO Kevin Hochman said on a recent call with investors and analysts.
So, are robot servers dead?
Chris Albrecht writes OttoMate, a newsletter dedicated to all things food robotics. Last week, he wrote a newsletter titled, “Wait, was I wrong about robot waiters?” This week, I asked — over and over, in different ways — if this technology might not take off after all.
Here’s our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Expedite: Hi, so… were you wrong about robot waiters?
Chris Albrecht, OttoMate: Well, they’ve been trying a lot of different things. Brinker was doing a thing with the Serve sidewalk robot, and I think they had a drone thing too — so they weren’t afraid to try new things. As I wrote a couple weeks ago, in April they announced they were moving the test up to 60 locations. So that seems like a pretty abrupt turnaround.
E: Do you think the decision had to do with the cost and the economy overall?
O: I really don’t know. Because as I’ve been covering robots, the thing that I talked about most is that there are lots of small mom-and-pop or regional chains that are adopting the robots. So it wasn't just corporate interest, it was these smaller restaurants that were implementing robot servers, which signaled to me they were pretty easy to set up and affordable enough. It seems like this technology is going to be easily implemented and was the tip of the spear for restaurant robotics, but I don’t know, maybe I was totally wrong.
E: I don’t think you were totally wrong. I know an independent restaurateur who tried a robot server for the novelty but ended up sending it back because their space was too small and they couldn’t justify the cost.
O: So that brings it back to Chili’s, because it’s typically a big enough restaurant with enough seating where a robot seems like it would make sense.
E: Do you think robotics companies need corporate buy-in to eventually work at scale?
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