What is it about?
- From staff shortages to robots
- How robots support the catering industry
- Robots in use in the HoReCa industry
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.
Colleague robot in the gastronomy
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.’
On the robot: From hoover to service worker
Christian and his mother Marianne, who founded the company nearly 13 years ago, now run three restaurants in Germany, located in Herxheim, Karlsruhe and Linkenheim. In addition, they send vacuumed tarte flambée in a six-pack to their customers' homes every 14 days. During a staff shortage, the domestic hoover robot gave Christian the idea to look for a catering robot. 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 two 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 four 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.’
Serving robot Ella shines when ordering drinks
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
As a service robot, Ella not only brings drinks and tarte flambée, 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.’
Robots in use in the gastronomy sector
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.
The human factor remains decisive
The hospitality industry is right in the thick of the digital transformation: 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 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?