Bye for now, robot servers
The future of hospitality is probably not rolling through the dining room right now.
Last year, the new CEO at Brinker, the parent company of Chili’s, abruptly halted a robotic server pilot program. The bots, built by California’s Bear Robotics and named Rita (as in marga-) dropped food and drink at tables at 60 Chili’s restaurants before the pilot ended under chief executive Kevin Hochman.
At the time, I asked friend of Expedite and restaurant robotics expert Chris Albrecht, formerly of Ottomate, if robot servers might be dead before they even got started. In fact, in what is one of my favorite Expedite Q&As, I asked him about five different ways if robot servers might be on the outs. (He wasn’t ready to call it just yet, but did seem perplexed by the Chili’s decision.)
To be fair, Hochman didn’t say that restaurant guests hated Rita the robot specifically. Shortly after ending the program, he told investors and analysts the company planned to focus on projects that had a short-term effect on the bottom line. But according to recent reporting in the New York Times, ditching the bots was one way for the corporate office to address the restaurant chain’s struggles with guest satisfaction — a non-attentive staff was high on customers’ lists of grievances, apparently.
Sounds like those predictions that robots would replace people in restaurants were misplaced.
The robots’ mention in the Times was part of a larger story about the future of hospitality in the traditional sense. (Think: warm, kind, customer service.) The headline declared that “diners are fed up with minimal service. Sounds like we’re underwhelmed by the state of hospitality right now: