A couple of weeks ago, my visit to the new Decatur Square restaurant the Deer and the Dove began with an energetic server who introduced himself and then proceeded to tell me all about the food and drinks. He sure got me salivating for supper.
A few days later, I watched 4-year-old Bailey Latt walk into Big Bang Pizza in Brookhaven and get just as excited by her restaurant greeter.
“Hello. My name is Pepper and I am your host.”
Bailey jumped up and down. The reason for the squealing: Pepper is a robot.
“She loves this place,” said Bailey’s mother, Stephanie Maddox. It was the third time they’d frequented Big Bang since the pizzeria opened in January.
While her mother placed an order at the counter, Bailey hung out with Pepper, pushing its touchscreen to make it dance and talk. Soon, Amy, one of Big Bang’s three robot servers, zoomed across the dining room like Rosie the maid from “The Jetsons” cartoon to drop off a tray with Bailey’s pizza.
Welcome to Chuck E. Cheese 2.0.
Pizza served with a side of technology isn’t exactly new. Restaurants long have embraced technology, whether via point of sale or online reservation systems that now include automatic text message alerts. There are tablet ordering systems and on-demand food delivery apps. However, it is striking to watch machines roam the floor and handle front-of-house duties.
You might think that robots replacing humans is a negative, but, at Big Bang Pizza, it’s been a win-win for everyone, starting with husband-and-wife owners German Barreda and Stephanie Paredes.
Last year, when the city of Brookhaven instituted changes to ordinances governing nightclubs, including requiring them to stop pouring alcohol at 2 a.m., Barreda and Paredes knew that their club, El Ocho, located at 3043 Buford Highway, would not survive — not when their biggest clientele was the late-night bar industry workers who stopped by for a drink after a shift.
The couple considered opening a pizza joint, but they needed a hook. What would attract people to their pizzeria? Surfing the internet one day, Barreda came across robot waiters. With a background in mechatronics, his interest was piqued by the notion.
The investment ($15,000 per server robot and a hefty $42,000 for Pepper) seems to be paying off. Friday and Saturday afternoons, Big Bang is practically “Romper Room,” hosting upward of a dozen birthday parties, where active tykes interact with robots Pepper, Amy, Lola and Kim — the latter currently is out of commission, because kids have pushed her buttons too hard, and is waiting for Barreda to fix her. (A sign on the front door reminds guests: “Please be gentle with the robots!”)
While Pepper greets guests, Amy, Lola and Kim bring New York- and Sicilian-style pies to the tables.
“Here is your food. Please take it away from my tray, and when you’re done, touch my hand so I can go back to work,” say the robot servers.
Big Bang still has plenty of human employees who take orders, mix drinks from the full bar, cook the pizzas and program the robots to deliver food to the tables. And, they like working with the bots. Robots don’t talk back, and they do what you tell them, cashier Daniela Montes said with a laugh.
Whereas Big Bang’s robots primarily serve as an attraction, companies such as commercial robotic sushi machine provider AUTEC have figured out how to give the automatons heavy-duty kitchen jobs.
AUTEC’s machines quickly are catching on with colleges and universities. Just this past year, Oglethorpe, Mercer and Valdosta State universities were among educational institutions around the country incorporating sushi robots into campus kitchen operations. All three Georgia universities use AUTEC rice sheet makers and rollers to produce sushi rolls at an hourly rate of up to 720 sheets and 450 rolls. Although the production needs for each institution vary by campus size, they average around 600 rolls, or 1,200 portions, per day.
The addition of robots has not resulted in a decrease in food-service staff, AUTEC Chief Executive Officer Taka Tanaka said in an email. Instead, it has meant a shift in assignments. “Due to having sushi robots in their kitchen operations, they can lessen the need for many kitchen staff to produce sushi rolls, and assign them to other stations, therefore increasing overall efficiency in operations,” Tanaka wrote.
One could argue that a fully automated food service concept is the most efficient operation of all. We can test that theory for ourselves at the Reis & Irvy’s frozen yogurt dispensing machines newly installed at Georgia State University and Piedmont Henry Hospital in Stockbridge. Many more locations in greater Atlanta are planned in the coming months.
A subsidiary of Generation Next Franchise Brands, Reis & Irvy’s offers two frozen yogurt flavors and six toppings via kiosks with self-checkout touch-screen ordering and payment options, video animation and music. The frozen dessert is provided through partnership with Dannon.
You can find Reis & Irvy’s machines in high-traffic spots like hospitals, theme parks and grocery stores — even at the NASA’s Space Center Houston, where the company’s first machine in the U.S. was installed in 2013; it remains the highest performer, based on daily revenue.
“We place the robot in a location that already has a captive audience,” said Nick Yates, founder and chairman of Generation Next. “There is no time of day someone doesn’t feel like a vanilla frozen yogurt covered in granola,” he added.
The pros for Reis & Irvy’s patrons: easy, convenient access to satisfy a sweet tooth for a price comparable to that at a brick-and-mortar shop ($4 for 5 ounces; $5 for 7 ounces). The pros for franchisees, according to Yates: no storefront to maintain — just the unit itself — and less risk of theft.
Of course, Reis & Irvy’s isn’t the same experience as walking into an ice cream shop, eyes growing wide over the gallons of options, then annoying the employee behind the counter with requests for free samples before you finally settle on a flavor. And, automation would be an unsatisfactory replacement to that exuberant server at the Deer and the Dove. But, robots do seem to have a place in the future of food service.
Believe it or not, robots also can put you in your place. Back at Big Bang, I was so enamored with little Pepper the host, that I felt the urge to hug it. When I did, my skin got stuck in its arm joints and it pinched me. Bruised by a robot — that’s a first.
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