Talking machines bring food to the table and clear dishes. Robots are still rare in restaurants in Germany. But because personnel is scarce in the catering industry, their use could increase significantly.
The little guy is only 1.30 metres high, but he can carry many trays at once, rush through the restaurant at a brisk pace and work non-stop. In a sushi restaurant in Cologne, the robot named Miaomiao is part of the service staff and drives autonomously to the tables. The guests take the ordered dishes themselves from one of the four floors, i.e. from the robot's torso, so to speak. The machine - its display in the "head" is reminiscent of a cat - dutifully says "thank you" and moves on to the next table with soft music. There is a shortage of staff in the catering industry - a growing opportunity for service robots as a kind of assistant waiter, according to some.
The robot relieves his staff, reports the co-owner of the sushi restaurant "Nakoyashi", Jianming Wu. "It's just a supplement, not a replacement." On the display, he types in which table Miaomiao should whiz to with a freshly charged battery. A sensor system prevents bumping, room coordinates are stored, as is a voice output - so the service machine can also sing "Happy Birthday", for example. "Our robot supports us a lot. It also puts on a bit of a show and is, of course, an attraction."
Currently, the use of such robots is not yet widespread in Germany, says economics professor Valentin Weislämle from the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University. "However, it is clear that the number of devices is increasing and that service robots will not disappear. In this respect, one can speak of a trend." The lack of personnel in the industry is an accelerator for their spread, explains the head of the Business Administration Tourism, Hotel and Catering course.
"The decisive factor is always the costs." The service robots for commercial use cost at least around 10,000 euros and, depending on the digital possibilities, much more. In return, he says, they can be used without a break. "This development will definitely be unstoppable," Weislämle believes. The machines could function as transport devices for dishes, provide voice-recognising order acceptance and deliver the food to the exact place.
So far, the restaurant association Dehoga only knows of a few businesses that work with service robots - for example in the Allgäu, in Bayreuth, in a harbour restaurant in Schleswig-Holstein or also a hotel in Berlin. General Manager Ingrid Hartges emphasises: "We cannot confirm that companies are investing more in service robots because of staff shortages."
Robots can help with the delivery and removal of dishes or simple meals, but they cannot replace real employees. "We don't expect service robots to be purchased across the board in our industry as a replacement for staff, although they do of course initially arouse great enthusiasm among guests," says Hartgies. Human contact and "warm and competent hospitality" are indispensable.
At the restaurant "Höxter Am Jakobsweg" in East Westphalia-Lippe, people are enthusiastic about the assistant, called Bella there. "The robot exceeds our expectations by far," says operator Rainer Bruns. The robot's "likeable appearance, appealing design and pleasant voice" have swept away all reservations among guests and staff. The device has been working reliably, without software crashes and with "considerable added value for our staff" for a good five months now.
Bella steps in to transport plates and can carry a load of ten kilograms on each of four large trays between the kitchen and the restaurant. The robot thus relieves the service staff of some or even all of their unpopular and strenuous work. Bella cannot serve - and that should remain in human hands, Bruns believes. In his restaurant, the robot brings the food to the table, but the waiter serves it. A "win-win situation", says the restaurant chef happily. "We are convinced that Bella will revolutionise the waiter's job and thus help it to become more attractive."
In the Cologne sushi restaurant "Nakoyashi", the visitors are amused: "A good gag and crowd puller," comments Robert Suche. "He has also never brought anything wrong to our table." His wife Marion Sellmann says: "I think it's funny. However, we don't come for the robot, the food has to taste good."
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