Wait, Was I Wrong About Robot Waiters?
A quick, somber, editorial note before we begin. I understand that it’s been a little light around the ole OttOmate lately. After an intense struggle with Lewy Body dementia and Parkinsons, my dad passed away earlier this month. We are doing as well as can be expected during something like this. I just wanted to let you know to explain the sporadic nature of posting/analysis lately. While I have your attention, however, if interested, please feel free to make a donation to the Lewy Body Dementia Association because that affliction is awful.
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Know when to robo-hold ‘em?
For that past year, I haven’t been able to shut up about robot servers — the autonomous racks on wheels that shuttle food and dirty dishes around a restaurant. At the start of the year, I proclaimed:
where will we see food robots first appear at scale?
The answer seems pretty obvious. The first place we’re going to see food-related robots appear in a meaningful way is restaurants. More specifically, we’re going to see a lot more server robots tooling around the front of house in restaurants.
But if I’m going to make a prediction, I need to make room for the idea that maybe I was… wrong(?). To be clear, the robot server industry hasn’t collapsed, but last week, Restaurant Business Online ran a story saying Chili’s is Pausing its Test of Server Robotics (Hat tip to TechCrunch’s Actuator).
From that Restaurant Business story:
Chili’s Grill & Bar is pressing pause on Rita the robot.
The casual-dining chain, which has been testing robots to seat guests and run food in some of its restaurants, is halting the program as it intensifies its focus on improving sales and traffic.
New CEO Kevin Hochman said the company recently laid out all of the technology projects it’s been working on and evaluated each on two variables: Its ability to drive sales and profits and the time and effort it would require to pull off.
Rita apparently did not meet executives’ expectations for one or both of those categories.
This news comes not long after Chili’s announced in April that it was expanding its use of Bear Robotics’ server robots to 61 locations this year, up from the first ten pilots. That was a quick about face.
Granted, this is just one chain and one robot server vendor. But this news comes after Chinese robot server vendor Pudu announced layoffs in July citing market conditions:
A source who currently works at Pudu Robotics, but didn’t confirm the layoffs, told The Robot Report “the robotics market within China has become hyper saturated and competitive to the point that price is all that matters, meaning every deal is leading to price competition for the lowest price.” The source added that Pudu is “reducing its investment to look to overseas markets where price isn’t the only factor, and [the company] can compete on their engineering and support advantages.”
I realize this is the second time I’m writing a version of the “are robot servers dead?” post. But these are two pretty high-profile examples in a market that has yet to prove itself. Food robotics aren’t running at scale yet. It’s a nascent sector and bad news on top of bad news is not a hat on a hat. It could actually scare potential buyers off.
It wasn’t all bad news for robot servers this week. Sodexo Live! posted an update on Linkedin ebulliently touting the addition of a robot server at the Lufthansa lounge at Dulles airport.
So negative 61 robots at Chili’s plus one robot at Dulles = good news?
That’s it for this week.