Do Pudu's Layoffs Spell Trouble for Server Robots?
Plus: A Dash of Amazon.
It’s important in life to remember that two things can be true at the same time.
For instance, I still believe robot servers will be the tip of the spear for food automation, and where we will first see true scale in the sector. As I wrote back in January:
There are actually a few reasons to be bullish on server robots:
There is a need. Restaurants continue to grapple with labor and staffing issues, forcing some chains like McDonald’s and Starbucks to reduce hours. Yes, there are a lot of factors such as pay and working conditions that play into that shortage, but those issues will continue and the ongoing pandemic isn’t making restaurants a more attractive place to work.
Server ‘bots are useful. The oft-repeated phrase when it comes to robots is that they are at their best when they take over mundane, repetitive, and/or dangerous tasks. Carrying trays of blooming onions throughout a shift may not be “dangerous” (eating them, however…), but if a robot can lug food and dirty dishes around, human staffers can focus more on customer service (and save their backs). Additionally, with the right LED screens, server bots can do double duty and act as mobile ad and promotional billboards while they are scurrying around the room and even sing Happy Birthday.
No need for build out. Unlike many back of house robots that cook, fry or assemble food, robot servers don’t require a restaurant to permanently install a big machine the kitchen. Operators just need to map the restaurant and have a place to charge to the robot.
Plus, what was true back in January is still true now: Google “restaurant server robots” and look at the News tab. You’ll see stories about mom n’ pop restaurants in smaller markets across the U.S. (and globally) adopting server bots. So interest and growth is coming from the ground up — not just at big chains like Chili’s and Denny’s.
But while all this is true — it’s also true that I don’t think making robot servers is a good business. Especially if you’re not already entrenched in the space.
Let’s take the news from last week that Pudu Robotics had “major layoffs.” The South China Morning Post obtained a leaked internal memo from Pudu CEO Felix Zhang Tao. In it, Zhang said that Pudu had to trim headcount to make a profit and “survive the long winter.”
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