Operating a business with fewer employees and increasing costs can be an uphill battle, and many restaurant owners are looking for innovative solutions through automation and artificial intelligence.
Archie Donoho, owner of Archie’s Italian Eatery, 1410 E. Republic Road, said he started looking for creative and economic ideas to help the servers that he does have, which is when he found robots being used in the hospitality industry.
Donoho named Rosie, the robot he leases from Bear Robotics Inc., based out of Redwood City, California, after the robot from “The Jetsons” cartoon. Rosie runs on batteries, can bring food to and from the kitchen and can also bus tables.
Donoho said it’s not about replacing jobs, but about trying to find a way to aid the servers and kitchen staff that Archie’s employs.
“We were just trying to figure out how we could get the food out faster and make the servers’ lives easier,” he said. “They have to run to the kitchen so much, and sometimes they are busy out here and can’t get back to the kitchen to get stuff.”
Donoho said he hired a food runner to help the servers, but it only made sense to have someone employed during peak times. The restaurant is open 60 hours a week.
Donoho pays $899 a month for Rosie, but he said the robot is cost-effective, as averaged out, she costs only $2.74 per hour during restaurant operating hours. He’s been using the robot for a few months.
Rosie talks to customers and can say phrases like “Please take your food,” “Excuse me,” or “Enjoy!” Bear Robotics came into the restaurant and programmed Rosie to have certain paths and stop points in the restaurant, he said.
Donoho said he is the only restaurant in the area to have a robot like Rosie, to his knowledge, and that they are mostly utilized in tourist areas.
According to the Bear Robotics’ website, the company designs three robot models for the hospitality industry: the Servi, Servi Plus and Servi Lift. The robots are used nationally at restaurant chains like Chili’s and Denny’s, according to the company’s website.
However useful Rosie is, Donoho said she doesn’t replace a server, as there are only so many things that the robot can do.
According to the National Restaurant Association, the restaurant industry has continued to face a worker shortage since the COVID-19 pandemic. There were 14.5 million restaurant industry employees at the end of 2021, according to the association, and that was still over 1 million fewer than pre-pandemic.
Bureau of Labor Statistics data on June’s employment outlook found the leisure and hospitality industry added 67,000 new jobs, but the actual employment is still down by 7.8% since February 2020.
Donoho said Archie’s, which has about 20 employees, hasn’t had an issue with keeping workers, but one of the reasons he looked at robots was to retain employees.
“The shortage of help across the system is a problem for everyone right now,” he said. “We didn’t want to lose any of our servers by overworking them.”
Larger restaurant groups are also feeling the pinch of workforce shortages.
Kristen Bergman, spokesperson for the McDonald’s Missouri Co-Op, the group of franchisees that operate 124 locations in the state of Missouri, including 66 locations across the Ozarks, said that although staffing needs are different at each location, considering population and daily average transactions, each store could use at least five or more additional employees.
Automation isn’t the only technology being used in restaurants. Bergman said area McDonald’s stores were already using delivery and mobile payment options before the pandemic, but there are additional technology options being added, some of which can attract new customers. .
“With mobile order and pay, we launched a new loyalty platform recently, and customers are really maximizing the opportunity to use loyalty points for free menu items,” she said.
Bergman said the local McDonald’s group works toward improvements in technology to aid not only the restaurant staff, but also customers.
According to SBJ archives, the McDonald’s Missouri Co-Op started adding self-order kiosks for customer use in 2015.
Nationally and internationally, technology continues to advance. Both Forbes and the EHL Hospitality and Business School in Switzerland have reported some of the industry technology to watch includes online ordering, contactless payment, restaurant reservation software, drone food delivery systems, chatbots, digital kitchen boards, QR codes and air purification systems.
Both the McDonald’s Missouri Co-Op and Archie’s Italian Eatery continue to use delivery service partners like DoorDash, GrubHub and UberEats.
“As soon as COVID hit, everything changed,” Donoho said. “More people started ordering through apps like never before. At one point, 100% of what we were doing was through the apps or carryout.”
Donoho said he sees about 20%-30% of orders still come from mobile order services that used to represent dine-in customers.
Rising costs and less diners
Although diners are going out to eat more often, the industry still hasn’t fully recovered. According to the National Restaurant Association, restaurant sales in 2021 totaled $799 billion, which is still down $65 billion from pre-pandemic averages.
Donoho said that when the economy struggles, the first thing people cut is going out to eat, and the costs are just continuing to rise. According to the BLS, in mid-July, the price index for food away from home rose 7.7% over the last year, the largest 12-month change since the period ending November 1981.
“I think eventually it will rebound, but we’ve got a long way to go,” Donoho said. “COVID still spikes and it scares people, especially older people who have more disposable income.”
Plans for the Finley Ridge apartment complex in the growing community of Ozark call for four buildings, four stories apiece, with 48 units each for a total of 192, as well as a 1,500-square-foot shared community and fitness room.