Sep 19, 2023 - News

Why robots won't replace restaurant servers anytime soon

Illustration of a robotic hand dipping a chicken nugget in sauce.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

The task seemed simple: Guide someone at Chili's to the right table. But the robot got lost.

Driving the news: Peter Newlin, co-founder of the fast-food chicken restaurant Birdcall, recalled the moment during a panel discussion Tuesday at Denver Startup Week about AI's impact in the food and restaurant industry.

Why it matters: Newlin's example demonstrated why panelists largely agreed AI won't replace restaurant and food staff, but instead complement their services.

  • Right now, robots' use in the industry is mostly seen as a gimmick.

What they're saying: "If it complements the dining experience, it's a win; if it's a distraction from the hospitality experience, it's a [failure]," Newlin, whose restaurant uses touch-screens to allow people to order food, tells us.

Details: Ben Deda, CEO at FoodMaven, said automation should augment existing services like a serving instead of replacing them.

  • "The question is, where can you find the work that people don't want to do or don't have time to do and can you use an AI, can you use a machine to take it off your hands?" Deda said.

Between the lines: Staffing shortages are a major issue in the restaurant industry, Diego Montemayor, co-founder and CEO of the staffing company Chamba, said on Tuesday.

  • However, no panelists suggested AI would be a factor in helping alleviate this shortage.

The intrigue: Newlin tells us he asked ChatGPT to consider new food items by plugging in ingredient options. He said some interesting dish ideas came from the experiment, but wouldn't say whether they'd appear on Birdcall's menu.

Of note: A robot chef made its debut this month at the University of Denver's Community Commons.

  • Founded by Israeli food tech company SavorEat, the robot chef produces plant-based, 3D-printed burgers in about three minutes. Customers use a kiosk to customize and place their order. The company plans to open another Denver location next year.
  • United Airlines also is using robots to collect dirty dishes at its new club in Denver airport's B concourse.

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