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California restaurant turns to sassy robot for extra help as it struggles to hire workers

NBC News logo NBC News 7/30/2021 Antonio Planas

A California restaurant enlisted high-tech help as it struggled to hire workers, obtaining a robot to carries trays of food to hungry customers.

Ana Ortiz, general manager of the Sugar Mediterranean Bistro in Stockton, told NBC News on Friday the yet-to-be-named robot, which can carry up to four trays of food and dishes, is like having another pair of helping human hands. But Ortiz said the automated gadget is not taking away jobs, saying that the restaurant offers competitive wages and flexible schedules but potential applicants aren't biting.

“We are struggling to find people to come in and work, just like every other business right now,” Ortiz said. “I don’t have enough employees to be running around food and serving tables. So, let’s say I’m at table two, I’m taking the order for table two while the robot is running the food for me to table seven. I load up the robot with dirty dishes, and it takes it right back to the dishwasher.”

“Nobody wants to come in and apply. Nobody wants to work. It’s just helping us because of the shortage of employees,” she said.

The robot was introduced to the public last week in a 39-second video posted on the eatery’s Facebook page. Reaction for the robot at the restaurant has been overwhelmingly positive, Ortiz said.

“People are coming in with their phones, recording, taking pictures. Everybody is loving it,” she said.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic spurred a worker shortage that has greatly affected businesses in the food service, retail, manufacturing and travel sectors. Businesses are trying to hire back employees following historic layoffs during lockdowns and an economic downturn.

But job seekers have said the wages being offered are too low. Demand for services has also grown as more Americans get vaccinated. The lack of workers has inevitably affected customer service, leading to slower service, longer lines and higher prices.

The restaurant industry has been hit particularly hard. Employees are recalibrating their lives and considering other careers that offer better pay and working conditions. Many customer-facing employees are staying out of the workforce due to fears that they could contract Covid-19, and some continue to collect unemployment benefits. Some larger fast-food chains have pivoted to offering referral bonuses, sign-on bonuses, and even free college tuition to hire workers.

One benefit of the Matradee robot, made by Richtech Robotics, is that it can be used as companies struggle to hire, company spokeswoman Miko Zhong said. The Matradee is the robot Ortiz is using at her restaurant.

Zhong said the robot is not replacing workers, it’s just a tool restaurants can use during the worker shortage. The robot is paid for through a monthly service of about 1/3 the cost of an employee, she said.

“It’s like extra help,” Zhong said. “It’s not replacing anyone. It’s making everything more efficient.”

Richtech’s website boasts two Matradee models which are “autonomous food service robots." The machines are capable of opening kitchen doors and have reaction times in fractions of a second, per the company's website, allowing them to avoid bumping into people or stationary objects such as tables or trash bins.

The robots can also be programmed to speak in languages such as English, Chinese or Japanese, Zhong said.

Ortiz said the robot can’t hold a conversation, but it does speak in phrases.

It also can be quite sassy, Ortiz said.

“If the robot is just sitting at a table, it tells you, 'Please take your food, I have to go back to work,’” she said. “If you get in its way too much, it will tell you, ‘Don’t be obsessed with me.’”

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