Local restaurants relieve pressure on servers with robots
By Betsy Webster
KANSAS CITY, Missouri (KCTVName) – As restaurants begin to see demand surge after the pandemic, some are turning to an unusual source to help their staff. At two local restaurants, you might see a robot bring your food the next time you dine out.
At Sayachi Sushi in Brookside, a sleek machine announces its move from the kitchen to the dining room with the phrase “Here comes the robot!”
The tone is polite but playful.
“It’s the voice of the elevator in Japan,” said customer Nathan Riding, who has lived in Japan.
Sayachi Sushi co-owner Carlos Falcon named the robot Totoro, a giant, fuzzy chinchilla in a Japanese animated film for children.
“My husband named the robot that because it’s my favorite stuffed animal,” said co-owner Sayaka Falcon.
With four trays, Totoro can carry more than a human food runner.
“When we’re really busy or when we have a really big table, it helps,” server Archer Wright said.
Servers are usually steps away from Totoro removing food from trays to help customers identify the contents of their order and provide the human touch expected of quality service.
“He just has this delightful quality. He is very human. But much nicer than some humans I’ve met,” said first-time customer Maddy Poletis, laughing.
Sayaka Falcon says they asked Totoro to help them when they had trouble hiring, and he always takes some of the burden off when they get criticized. but he also became a bit of a celebrity.
“Sometimes people call and say, ‘Is the robot working today?’ And you’re like, ‘Well, the robot doesn’t have a day off.’ From the employer’s perspective, that’s the best thing, you know. No drama, no sick days,” Falcon said.
She laughed at her own joke, as she appreciates her human servers and has no intention of replacing them. Although she notes that it also saves them money, since they don’t have to tip that sender part of their tip at the end of the night.
She says Totoro costs the equivalent of six months salary for a waiter.
It plays a little melody along the way. He can sing happy birthday, but he’s currently tuned to a soft keyboard tune to be unobtrusive. Customers noticed the sound was cute and charming, but Wright says it also acts as a warning to servers to steer clear when turning into a blind corner of the server station at the dining room.
If you’re getting in the way of Totoro, his sensors know and he’ll try to get around you. But if you play a stubborn chicken game, he will talk.
“I’m sorry. I have to go,” he told KCTV5 news team when we tested his patience.
His third remark ranges from politeness to entreaty.
“Don’t block my path. Please. I have to work. Otherwise, I’ll get fired.
It’s Wright’s favorite.
He says customers notice the dots on the ceiling, each with a different design, and ask, is it braille? Is it art?
They actually match a table number, programmed into Totoro, whose upward-facing camera can match it to the table it’s tasked to deliver to.
It even has a slower “stable” setting for ramen orders.
“I mean, I think he spilled less ramen on himself than on me,” Wright says.
Totoro’s second remark when he’s stuck is, “Don’t get too obsessed with me. Please.”
Poletis repeated the line with a laugh, then added, “I’m totally obsessed with him. I would like to have a Totoro at home.
Sayachi Sushi isn’t the only restaurant in town to have a food processor. Lulu’s Thai noodle shop at Crossroads has had one since late June and will add a second in its new location in Overland Park when it opens this fall. They too use their robot just to transport food. Human servers do all customer interactions.
One manager said it’s less about a staff shortage than just trying to lend them a hand, but it’s also a novelty that kicks in customers.
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