Food Service Robots on the Horizon
At IAAPA Expo 2022 in Orlando, one of the hot topics in EDUSessions and on the show floor included using robots and other automatons at attractions—not as novelties to attract gawkers, but as servers to assist attraction operators.
Some attractions staff believe robots and other automatons are crucial additions at a time when they continue to struggle with finding candidates willing to work. Meanwhile, other operators see automation as a tool that would free their employees from completing tasks so they can provide face-to-face contact with guests. Whatever the motivation, the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership at University of Houston in Texas has secured a service robot of its own, putting it to the test in a campus restaurant.
Hilton College prepares students for opportunities and careers in lodging, restaurants, tourism, casinos, hospitality consulting, and sports and entertainment venues. In May 2022, the college’s Dean, Dennis Reynolds, became captivated with a state-of-the-art food service robot named Servi at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago. He decided to secure one for Eric’s Restaurant, a casual dining location seating about 115 customers at the University of Houston Hilton hotel.
Servi arrived at the restaurant in October 2022, and after a period of preparation, the robot on wheels was put to work navigating the dining room to help the serving staff deliver food to customers. Servi’s logic components and batteries are housed in the base of the robot, while the torso and top include shelves where cooks can place entrees that the robot then delivers. To date, Servi is a hit.
“While I knew guests would like Servi, the results have far exceeded my expectations—they love it,” says Reynolds. “I was also a little worried about the dining‑room staff adapting. Again, I was pleasantly surprised. They made Servi part of their routines immediately.”
He’s careful to note the strategy behind adding Servi, which was built by Bear Robotics in Redwood City, California. “Our approach to adding a robot in the dining room is not to cut labor, but rather, to augment it. Food servers can now spend much more time with the guests. That was the impetus for the research project.”
Reynolds and a graduate student, Melica Jahed, are evaluating how Servi affects the customer experience, including whether the service is better because the food was delivered by a robot and whether there is customer resistance. But Reynolds says in studies conducted at senior living facilities where one might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, the reaction was just the opposite, and residents welcomed the change.
Hilton College surveyed restaurant guests for two months prior to Servi’s arrival to assess their satisfaction with the food service, and the same survey was then given to guests who had Servi assisting in the dining room. “We’re very interested in different responses based on demographic differences,” says Reynolds. “For example, do younger diners like the introduction of robotics in food service more than older guests, or is the opposite true?”
He thinks Servi might be a big hit in a ballroom situation, where its novelty would be on display and it could efficiently traverse the room, only returning to the kitchen to be restocked. Reynolds thinks the next step for robots like Servi is hotel room service, where they could deliver food and items like towels and toiletries. “The days of a front‑desk clerk having to leave the lobby to deliver soap to a room are over,” believes Reynolds.