Teaming up with robots

timer4 minApril 2022

They are still a rarity and turn plenty of heads. But robots that help serve and cook food are on the way in. They take a lot of the work off their human colleagues’ shoulders, leaving them more time to spend with guests.

Ella purrs slowly along the aisle between the tables. She is carrying a cola, a water, a beer and a juice as well as a ‘Flammkuchen’ (tarte flambée) topped with pepperoni, onions and feta. Ella arrives at table 202. She stops and says in a friendly tone: ‘Please take your order.’ The drinks are quickly handed out and the tarte flambée is placed in the middle of the table. Before the hungry guests dig in, they cast a final glance at the waiting Ella. With a tap of a finger on her display screen, she reverses and glides back toward the service counter.

While digital colleagues like Ella are still far from commonplace, robots working in the hospitality industry have long since ceased to be a vision in a sci-fi film. When Christian Pudlo, Managing Director of Marianne’s Flammkuchen , was looking to hire new staff, he didn’t have a robot server in mind. ‘After the second lockdown, we had real trouble finding new staff. We took out advertisements, handed out flyers and even offered a reward, but no luck. For months, we could only operate 1 of our 2 dining rooms in Herxheim.’

From hoover to server

Christian and his mother Marianne, who founded the company nearly 13 years ago, now run 3 restaurants in Germany, located in Herxheim, Karlsruhe and Linkenheim. Their catering operation, which normally runs in parallel over 160 days a year, has been put on hold due to the pandemic, apart from a handful of orders during the summer months. But the Pudlos are creative: in February 2021, they started delivering their tartes to a local supermarket. Christian Pudlo also came up with a solution to his staff shortage. His robot vacuum cleaner at home gave him the idea of looking for a digital employee. Several hours of online research and a few phone calls later, he had his answer: a PuduBot, priced at around €12,000, would be joining the crew in Herxheim. The 2 dining rooms are separated by a 15-metre corridor and can seat 125 guests. ‘The restaurant in Herxheim is ideal for a robotic server: it’s a long way from the counter to the back dining room, but there are no stairs.’

Just 4 weeks later, Ella came on board, initially for a week-long trial run. The only guidance she needs are reflectors stuck to the ceiling. That’s how she knows what table is located where. She uses cameras on her front and sides to detect obstacles and navigate around them. Within 3 hours, she was fully trained and ready for her first shift. After that, all she needed was a little fine-tuning. ‘At first, my employees were sceptical whether she would really be much help to them. But Ella quickly put their concerns to rest.’

That’s because Ella is easy to operate – either with a display screen on the robot or via smartphone – and whisks heavy loads back and forth between the service counter and the dining rooms. She really comes into her own with drinks orders. The jobs are delegated clearly: when the team greet the guests at their tables, they ask whether they would like Ella to serve them. If not, the robot just brings the drinks to the table and then a human colleague takes over. However, many people ask specifically to have Ella as their server. She’s quite an attraction: ‘When new guests make reservations, they often ask whether they can be served by Ella and if there is a surcharge,’ says the restaurateur, laughing.

Ella helps with clean-up, too

The electronic employee does more than bring drinks and tartes; she also helps clean up. On command, she follows a human server (to be more precise, the server’s smartphone) and gets loaded up with empty plates, cutlery and glasses. She can haul up to 40 kilos back to the kitchen on 4 trays at a speed of 0.5 metres per second. But safety is always paramount: ‘Ella can go faster, but if she needs to swerve around an obstacle unexpectedly, tall glasses could tip over.’ After each trip, the robot returns to the waiting position at the counter. An overnight snooze plugged into the socket is only required every second day; that’s how long the battery lasts. Christian Pudlo believes that robots will soon be a normal part of everyday operations. ‘I see huge potential for service robots like Ella especially in large hotels, where they can respond to guests’ requests for a fresh towel in the sauna or a snack from the bistro.’ But Ella has one feature the restaurateur was not expecting: ‘We found a new employee. She applied for a job after reading about Ella in the newspaper.’

Robot servers like Ella have been around for several years. They whir around restaurants all over the globe, supporting their human colleagues. Or in extreme cases, they even replace them altogether, such as at China’s Foodom Tianjiang Food Kingdom. Here, 40 robots have been cooking for up to 600 guests since 2020.
There are no definitive statistics on the number of robots at work in the HoReCa industry around the world, or even just in Germany. For the time being, they are still a curiosity. Sure, robots can work fast and deliver consistent quality. But special requests? Queries? A personal chat? Can’t do it. What’s more, today’s models are limited in their use by architectural features like stairs. However, the pandemic and the resulting staff shortages have increased the demand for robots to perform tasks ranging from waiting staff support to disinfecting hotel rooms. 

Cook and robot working together

A digital helper with an entirely different job is causing quite a stir in Leipzig: Roki supports the team at DaVinci Kitchen, preparing food together with cook Paul Posse. The responsibilities are clearly defined: the cook purchases ingredients, prepares the sauces and chops the necessary ingredients into the right size. And the creative part of cooking is also in his hands. He develops recipes so that the guests always find something new to try. The rest is left to Roki in his ‘gourmet cube’. ‘That’s what we call the glass box the robot works in,’ says Anne König, who is responsible for marketing at DaVinci Kitchen. ‘It is positioned in the middle of the dining room so the guests can watch him cook no matter where they are sitting.’ The back of the gourmet cube is directly connected with the refrigerated area of the kitchen. ‘That way, the cook can just take out the containers with the ingredients, clean them and fill them again, and they stay fresh all day.’

Roki is just as big an attraction as Ella. ‘Guests come to the restaurant specially to watch Roki work his magic, and of course because they like the consistent quality of the food so much.’ He can cook 6 different dishes, averaging about 5 minutes per meal. Guests can place their orders either with the servers or via their smartphone using the QR code on each table, just like the restaurant in Herxheim has. When they scan the code, they are directed to the restaurant’s website. There they can make their selection and pay contactless. The order is sent straight to the robot. He calculates the necessary steps and the magic begins: cooking the pasta, removing the right amount of each ingredient from the containers, sautéing onions and perhaps some chorizo, adding the vegetables and seasoning. As soon as the pasta is cooked al dente, he drains it and adds it to the sauce. Done. Roki can cook up to 3 dishes at the same time. As soon as a meal is plated, the order number lights up on the gourmet cube and the guest can pick up the pasta and eat it at the restaurant or take it home.

DaVinci Kitchen: pasta and an inventor’s mindset

At DaVinci Kitchen, Roki and Paul Posse share the cooking, but the staff of 14 has big plans for the robot. This is not just a restaurant – it’s also a start-up with an idea: in the future, gourmet cubes could provide fresh, healthy, hot meals in many places, thus helping to combat the problem of staff shortages. ‘He can cook anywhere people are: at train stations, airports, department stores, companies or hospitals, even at night, when it’s hardly worth it for a restaurant to open and nobody particularly wants to work.’ The robo-cook was developed by Ibrahim Elfaramawy and Vick de Froz Jorge Manuel. Apetito AG and 2b Ahead Ventures brought these creative minds together in 2019. After deliberating what to teach Roki to cook first, they decided on pasta. The mix of noodles, a sauce and vegetables is well suited to an apprentice. That is also where the company’s name came from: a combination of Italian cuisine and an homage to the brilliant, multitalented inventor Leonardo Da Vinci, who was way ahead of his time.

Apprenticeship: 3 years

Following a 3-month pilot phase, the gourmet cube is now showing what it can do during a long-term test in the restaurant in Leipzig. Teething problems have long since been sorted out. ‘Over the past 3 years, we’ve been fine-tuning it nonstop and have learned a lot in the process. For example, the ingredients – onions, peppers, mushrooms – always have to be diced the same size so that the robot can take the right amount out of the containers every time. He expects everything to be uniform. Basically, Roki can cook everything he’s taught to make. In addition to pasta, we also have curry and soups on the menu, so there are always 6 different dishes on offer.’ He works with 12 different ingredients, of which 6 are solids and 6 are liquids. Guests’ preferences dictate the menu. When the shift is over, Roki fights food waste: he uses the leftover ingredients to prepare more meals, which are distributed through the app ‘Too good to go’. In the future, Roki should be able to work according to guests’ needs and habits even better and accommodate allergies or special nutrition requirements. His fast casual food will then be completely customisable.

The hospitality industry is right in the thick of the digital transformation: scanning vaccination certificates with handheld devices, taking orders with a tablet, checking in with a QR code on the table, contactless payment. While all that has now become the new normal, robots like Ella and Roki still cause a sensation. Will these stunners eventually cease to amaze and instead reign over future dining rooms? Or will they take over boring, routine kitchen tasks such as washing dishes, chopping ingredients and wiping tables? There is one thing at least that will not be changing any time soon, as everyone agrees: for guests, the human factor will remain the key to the traditional restaurant visit. Although ... 20 years ago, who would have thought that one day we would all be walking around with tiny high-performance computers in our pockets?