Robot waiters are here, but do they have any future in our restaurants? Are they going to replace wait staff?

So far, robot waiters are a novelty. They aren’t common, but if you live in a decent-sized city, you can probably find a restaurant that has at least one. Waist-high, friend-shaped little machines that can greet guests and take you to a table, deliver food and drinks, and take your dirty dishes to the kitchen (if you hand them to it). Some are designed to be more interactive, with faces on screens and appealing reactions, like purring when they’re patted on the ‘head.’

But so far, they’re pretty limited. They can’t take orders, except by touch-screen apps that aren’t very convenient for a table of four to use, and restaurant layouts have to cater to them.

“Restaurants are pretty chaotic places, so it’s very hard to insert automation in a way that is really productive,” said Craig Le Clair, a vice president with the consulting company Forrester who studies automation.

But they’re still becoming rapidly more common. Bear Robotics inn Redwood City, California, expects to have shipped over 10,000 of its Servi robot by the end of this year, and they only opened in 2021. Pudu Robotics from Shenzen, China was founded in 2016, and they have shipped nearly 60,000 of their dining robots.

Restaurants who use them say they got their first one to help deal with staffing shortages, and added more because their novelty draws in business. The robots cost between $15,000 and $30,000, while a human server costs at least $5,000 per month (including benefits, accommodations, administration, etc, not only wages.)

According to Karthik Namasivayam, director of The School of Hospitality Business at Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business, robot servers are likely to continue to proliferate in the industry, replacing wait staff entirely in some venues as the technology improves. His prediction is that eventually, human wait staff will be considered a luxury experience in between 30 and 40% of restaurants, with robot waiters doing the work in lower-tier places, as well as in back-of-house.

Photo: Stefano Mazzola / Shutterstock