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Could Robots Be the Solution to the Restaurant Worker Shortage?

As restaurants and food service establishments face an ongoing workforce shortage, many are turning to automation as the answer.

The past year has been a rocky road for restaurants across the country. First, it was dine-in pandemic restrictions, then it was social distancing rules that limited the number of guests allowed indoors. Now, just as Americans are returning to dining out and restaurants are hoping to go back to business as usual, they’re confronting severe challenges hiring both cooks and wait staff. 

While the recent jobs report showed some improvement as restaurants, bars and other food-service establishments added 186,00 jobs in May, many restaurants are still struggling to find enough employees to meet summer demand. 

With federal unemployment benefits set to expire on September 6 — and some states ending them earlier — restaurant and fast food operators are hoping the worker shortage will end. But rather than wait to see how it plays out, some restaurants are turning to automation as a solution to the workforce crisis.

Cuban restaurant Sergios in South Florida was one of the first to test out robots to bring food to tables and bus dirty dishes. 

"We’ve been struggling to find labor," Carlos Gazitua, CEO of Sergio's Restaurants, told NBC Miami. "Everyone is in the entire market, not just restaurants. And we had to see what we could do fishing from the same pond. Robots became a solution.”

Gazitua found his robot worker at Bear Robotics, a startup that offers “Servi,” a robot that’s taken three years to develop. With the push of a button, Servi can autonomously deliver food and drinks to tables and kitchens.

Bear Robotics, whose robots are now serving Houston Rockets fans at the Toyota Center, is one of a number of startups that are developing robots to replace restaurant workers — from bus staff to wait staff, baristas to pizza delivery bots, and even cooks. 

While robots are not yet ready to compete with Cordon Bleu-trained chefs, they can flip burgers. Restaurant automation startup Miso Robotics’ robot “Flippy,” the world’s first AI-powered kitchen assistant, is a mean fry cook who doesn’t need breaks and can manage a full menu of fried products. 

Last July, White Castle announced a pilot program with a version of Flippy to address “new normal” challenges brought about by COVID.

In April of this year, Dominos rolled out its first-ever pizza delivery bots in partnership with robotics firm Nuro and in February, DoorDash acquired robotic salad maker Chowbotics

While robot workers may seem like something out of Star Wars, the pandemic and staffing shortages have made it a reality that’s only just beginning.