Robots at the Ready

Written by Carolyn Jung | Photography by Craig Lee

Between the pandemic and the labor shortage, automation is having a moment.

At Santa Clara’s craft tap-house The Halford, patrons order food at a self-serve kiosk before taking a seat. Moments later, servers Sterling, Simcoe and Citra bring out spicy bulgogi sliders, honey barbecue wings and more to appropriate tables with a cheery “Enjoy!” before gliding away.

Yes, gliding. Because Sterling, Simcoe and Citra are robots — and comprise nearly the entire dining room staff at this 6-year-old, family-owned restaurant.

When The Halford readied to reopen in November 2021 after a 20-month closure due to the pandemic, co-owner Sophia Oh says, she had no choice but to take this daring approach after four fruitless months struggling to hire human servers for her 5,000-square-foot establishment.

“Robots aren’t taking over the world. Robots don’t take jobs,” says Oh, the only human worker in the dining room each day until a bartender joins her in the late afternoon. “If we were still having to hire people,” she adds, “we might not be open today.”

As help wanted signs remain pervasive, could robots hold the solution — or even a partial one — to the Great American Labor Shortage rocking the hospitality industry? After all, they don’t get sick (though they may break down), take vacation time or need to earn enough to afford the Bay Area’s astronomical housing costs.

At the AC Hotel Sunnyvale Moffett Park, robots act like bellhops, navigating the property and interacting with guests.| Photo courtesy Of Ac Hotels.

Certainly, the appetite is increasing. As many as 50 percent of U.S. restaurant operators plan to install some form of automation technology in the next two or three years, according to a 2021 report by Lightspeed, a point-of-sale and e-commerce software provider. The global food tech market, which was $220 billion in 2019, is projected to reach $342 billion by 2027, according to consulting firm Emergen Research.

For Redwood City’s Bear Robotics, the pandemic proved an unexpected boon. It manufactures the Servi robots leased by The Halford, where patrons nicknamed them for hops varieties.

In the past two years, Bear Robotics’ business has more than tripled, according to Rodney Guerrero, its local regional sales manager. Since its founding in 2017, more than 5,000 of its robots now operate in restaurants and hotels nationwide, including 40 Denny’s, 55 Chili’s and the Roger Bar & Restaurant in Mountain View’s Ameswell Hotel, where a pair dubbed Wall-E and Eve bus dirty dishes from the dining room to the kitchen after servers load up their shelves.

“A robot can maybe do every work activity that a human can, but its advantage is smaller in some areas.” — Richard Freeman

At the start of COVID, when minimizing human contact was paramount, demand for the Servi robots even expanded to a new sector, senior living facilities, which continues to grow at a clip rivaling that of restaurants, according to Guerrero. “The seniors say, ‘I’m finally living in the era of The Jetsons,’” he notes. “The robot has become a social media phenomenon. It generates a lot of buzz.”

Especially in the Bay Area, which has been ground zero for the new, the shiny and the automated, though at times with mixed results. Mountain View’s Zume (pizza made by robots and cooked en route to delivery), San Francisco’s Eatsa (a quinoa-bowl automat) and San Carlos’ Dishcraft (dishwashing robots) all flamed out.

Among the newest launches is RoboJuice of San Carlos. In May, it debuted at San Francisco’s Metreon its first robotics-powered kiosk to make fresh fruit acai bowls and smoothies.

It follows Café X, the robotic barista that opened in the Metreon in 2017 and expanded to two other downtown San Francisco locations, only to close all three just prior to the pandemic. Café X has since opened two locations at San Francisco International Airport and one in Dubai. The United Arab Emirates city also gained the first automated pizza-making kiosk in February, a joint project by Cleveland’s 800 Degrees Go and Santa Monica’s Piestro, which plan to have 3,600 of the machines up and working over the next five years.

The Halford’s co-owner, Sophia Oh, relies on robots Sterling, Simcoe and Citra to deliver the Santa Clara taphouse’s dishes to diners. | Photo courtesy Of Robojuice.
For the Nob Hill Gazette

Creator, the first robot-burger-making cafe, closed its original San Francisco SoMa outpost early on in the pandemic but rebooted in summer 2021 to open at Westlake Shopping Center in Daly City.

Then there is Chowbotics, maker of the salad robot, dubbed Sally, which seemingly scored a coup when it was acquired in 2021 by San Francisco’s DoorDash. Yet Ruth Isenstadt, Chowbotics’ general manager, declined to answer how much the company has grown, saying only that there are “hundreds” operating at hospitals, universities, grocery stores and offices.

Of course, the more robots proliferate, the greater the gnawing anxiety that they will eventually supplant human workers. Consider that the minimum wage in California is $15 an hour, while a Bear Robotics robot leases for $1,000 a month, or about $3 an hour.

Yet robots have very real limitations. At The Halford, patrons still order beer from a human bartender, who can verify legal drinking age, and pick up their beverages at the bar because the robots don’t yet move smoothly enough to guarantee no upended glasses.

The AC Hotel Sunnyvale Moffett Park knows firsthand the constraints. It opened this year with a mobile robot by Pennsylvania’s Aethon. The only such robot at any AC hotel, it succeeded an earlier version at the AC Sunnyvale Cupertino, which didn’t pan out. That one was supposed to help transport linens to and from guest rooms and the laundry, but it proved too cumbersome, says Mike Lerman, general manager of the Sunnyvale Moffett Park property. The new iteration, though, acts more like a bellhop, carrying toothbrushes and even Uber Eats to rooms. Once programmed and loaded, the robot can summon the elevator and get on it, and text the guest when it arrives outside their door.

The recently installed RoboJuice kiosk at the Metreon in downtown San Francisco offers acai bowls and smoothies. | Photo courtesy Of Robojuice.

“If a guest calls for something to be sent up and the front desk agent is busy, that employee would have to find someone to do that task or wait for a lull to do it themselves,” Lerman says. “This is a relief for that.”

It also illustrates how robots, for the most part, are designed to perform only one task, unlike a human who might have the versatility to work as a server, host or bartender, as needed.

“It’s possible at some unknown future time that robots will replace humans, but we’re pretty far away from that,” says professor Richard Freeman, codirector of the Labor & Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. “A robot can maybe do every work activity that a human can, but its advantage is smaller in some areas. As long as our fingers are nimbler, we’ll be the ones getting paid.”

Tim Stannard, president of Bacchus Management Group — which operates Pizza Antica, the Village Bakery and three Michelin one-starred restaurants in the Bay Area — applauds the way robots like Chowbotics’ Sally have made healthful food more accessible in institutional settings, but he believes there is one vital intangible that they can’t provide.

“Over the long haul, I think people want beautifully prepared food, made and delivered by knowledgeable, empathetic staff,” he says. “So many of us spend so much time at screens that sitting down for a meal and having a break, to just be human with other humans, is really important.”

For Oh, the robots have more than lived up to expectations. The only change she would make? Having a Roomba or Swiffer attachment so they could do double duty.

“But these are made by young engineers,” she chuckles. “What do they know about cleaning?”

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